Race for a Smart Contact Lens Gets New Entry from a Thiel Dropout

With fresh funding from the Thiel Foundation, startup Medella is going up against Google and Microsoft to build a smart contact lens.

More than 9 percent of the American population has diabetes.

The latest entrepreneur to attempt to build a “smart contact lens” that helps people track medical conditions is a 22-year-old college dropout.

Harry Gandhi will halt his biotechnology and economics studies at the University of Waterloo to work full-time on his med-tech startup, Medella. He’s one of 20 college kids picked by the Thiel Foundation, a philanthropic outfit founded by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel that promotes libertarian values, as its 2015 fellows. The foundation grants $100,000 to young entrepreneurs with the requirement that they drop out of college to focus on their endeavors.

Founded at the university in 2013 and now with seven full-time employees, Medella aims to build a contact lens that measures glucose levels in tears as a way of helping patients manage diabetes. In 2012, roughly 29.1 million Americans—or 9.3 percent of the population—were afflicted with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Health-care costs associated with the disease have jumped to $245 billion from $174 billion in 2007.

Medella’s device is still in the “macroprototype phase” —fitted more for an elephant’s eyeball, Gandhi says, than for a human’s. The idea is that a tiny biosensor built into the contact lens will measure glucose concentration in the moisture around the eye. A circuit will process and transmit the data via an antenna to a small device, which may attach to the patient’s collar, glasses, or a necklace. That device then sends the information to a Bluetooth-enabled gadget like a smartphone, where an app stores and analyzes the data.

Right now the contact lens requires this device as a middleman to amplify the signal but also to wirelessly transmit power back to the contact lens. Medella considered harnessing the movement and electrochemical signals around the eye to power the device, but Gandhi says there is too much electrochemical variation from person to person to rely on such sources. The company also considered an on-lens battery, but that would be too bulky.

One of the considerations Gandhi’s team had to make was designing the contact lens functionality for type 1 and type 2 diabetics. From testing, Gandhi believes type 1 diabetics will want to monitor levels continuously, and type 2 more intermittently. Medella hopes to eventually have a version for type 2 patients where they can wave the phone in front of their eye when they want to check glucose levels, rather than constantly transmitting data and wearing out the sensor and battery faster.

The company is building its own app to manage the data. “The amount of analytics you can [perform] is immense,” Gandhi says, pointing out that coupling GPS with time-stamped glucose levels would help a patient understand how different activities during their day affect blood-sugar levels.

Gandhi and Medella certainly aren’t alone in their hopes for smart contact lens technology. Technology giants like Novartis, Google, and Microsoft have publicly outlined plans to work on similar technology over the last few years. For now, Gandhi believes, his firm will differentiate itself by offering a sensor that requires less calibration and has a longer life. Medella was in stealth mode until last October shoring up its intellectual property.

“It will be very interesting to see where this industry goes in the next two to three years,” says Gandhi, who declined to say when his lens will be ready to market.

Gandhi isn’t quite a rookie. Medella is his second startup—his first, a genetic sequencing venture, failed. “Maybe this is overly optimistic, but I think you only lose at this game when you stop trying,” he says.

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