With Novartis deal, Google's glucose-sensing contact lens looks a little more real

By Jonah Comstock
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GoogleContactLensJust seven months after announcing its ambitious contact lens program, Google has announced a partnership with Novartis eye care division Alcon to license its still-largely-theoretical "smart lens" to the Swiss pharma company.

"We are looking forward to working with Google to bring together their advanced technology and our extensive knowledge of biology to meet unmet medical needs," Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez said in a statement. "This is a key step for us to go beyond the confines of traditional disease management, starting with the eye."

In the announcement, published on Novartis' website, the company actually mentions two use cases for the smart lenses. Noninvasive glucose monitoring (via tears) for people with diabetes was one. That's the use case about which Google met with the FDA last year. The other was for people with corrective vision needs. 

"For people living with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses, the 'smart lens' has the potential to provide accommodative vision correction to help restore the eye's natural autofocus on near objects in the form of an accommodative contact lens or intraocular lens as part of the refractive cataract treatment," the statement says.

For Google, this partnership is a measure of validation for an idea that has been met with a good deal of skepticism. When MobiHealthNews asked executives from diabetes-focused businesses like Glooko, Dexcom, and WellDoc about the project, they called it "a science project" at best. Measuring glucose via tears is an imprecise method to begin with, and keeping all the necessary electronics, plus a power source, in a functional contact lens will have many challenges. Even Google has said it would need five years to establish a commercial product.

On the other hand, the project is not as out-of-the-blue as some make it out to be. Project co-founder Babak Parviz has actually been working on a smart contact lens since at least 2009, working with Microsoft Research before coming to Google. It's certainly possible that Parviz, Google, and, now, Novartis, know something we don't about the technology.

Update: Venture Beat is reporting that Parviz has moved on once more, this time to Amazon. What that means for the contact lens project, which he apparently brought to Google, is unclear.

This wouldn't be the first time Novartis took a chance on a far-flung mobile health project. The company invested $24 million in smart pill company Proteus Digital Health in 2010 after the two companies worked together on a small pilot. In that case, they licensed Proteus's technology for use with organ transplant patients. The company has also reportedly been in talks with Vital Art and Science to distribute iPhones preloaded with Vital Art and Science's FDA-cleared eye exam app MyVisionTrak along with Novartis's macular degeneration drug Lucentis.