Startup founders see bright future for bionic eye
'We're in the realm of the possible here'
- On Nov. 29, iBionics won Startup Canada's National Innovation Award.
- The award is given to a company showing excellence in innovation.
A physicist, an engineer and an entrepreneur join forces to create a bionic eye using diamonds and laser beams.
It sounds like science fiction, or the stuff of comic books, but the project is actually underway right now, right here in Ottawa and in Australia.
Shortly after moving to Ottawa, Australian physicist Stephen Prawer and his wife Michelle teamed up with engineer Michel Pigeon, a partnership that began as a chance encounter when Michelle took up winter running and met Pigeon on a run.
The three founders each brought something to the table, but were missing a business brain and a surgeon. That's where entrepreneur Suzanne Grant and Dr. Flavio Rezende came in.
The result: international startup iBionics. The goal: to create diamond eye implants that can help restore sight to the blind.
"It has a property that its surface is very stable. So, many materials in the body degrade with time but diamond is forever. It never degrades. And it can be made in a form that can encapsulate, safely, the electronics so the electronics are not damaged by the body," Stephen Prawer told CBC Ottawa's Alan Neal on All In A Day.
Now for the $6-million question: How does it work?
Inspired by Cochlear, an Australian company that helped deaf people to hear using implants by artificially stimulating the nerves in the ear, Prawer wondered whether the same could be done for the infinitely more complicated human eye.
"This device artificially provides the electrical stimulation to the retina ... The other part of the device is a pair of glasses that people wear, which captures the image through a little camera and then, via a laser beam, sends the information through the eye to the back of this device which then get converted into electrical signals, which then stimulate the retina ... the signals go along the optic nerve to the back of the brain and the person perceives images."
For Rezende, who gained prominence by performing eye implants in the past, Prawer's research eliminates previous limitations. For example it eliminates an infection-prone cable used in current implant technology, using a laser instead.
Dream needs $100M
The team feels further research can help improve the technology to the point where it gives people who are going blind hope that their symptoms could be reversed.
It's not way out there like Star Trek. It's right here on Earth.- Suzanne Grant, iBionics co-founder and CEO
"At the end of my career, I want to be able to look at somebody and they'll be able to see me because there's some of my technology inside their eye. That's my dream," says Prawer, who has returned to Australia with Michelle, where he continues creating the implants.
"To go all the way to the end," says Grant. "To get to the point where we've financed the commercialisation and the global marketing we'd actually need $100 million. That can sound like kind of a scary price tag but within this space it's quite usual.
"And if we look at the success of Cochlear, that's a $7-billion company by delivering hearing to 300,000 people. So we're in the realm of the possible here. It's not way out there like Star Trek. It's right here on Earth. We can do this."