Ottawa entrepreneur Kevin Rankin knows he has a hot product by the customers he has seen since his computerized vision-assisting eyewear went on the market in June. "They've been flying in from out of the country to see us," he says. "These are people who aren't prepared to take 'no' for an answer."
The answer Mr. Rankin is offering is eSight, a wearable device that uses a video camera, computer and LED screens to capture and process images in ways that can dramatically increase the sight of those with uncorrectable central vision loss. eSight's early adopters are low-vision career people who need better sight for their next job, students determined to lower the hurdles to their education, and well-to-do seniors for whom the $9,750 price tag is not a serious impediment.
eSight is an all-Canadian entrant in an area that has scarcely been touched by the technological revolutions of the past few decades, but that has recently seen a surge of development.
Sub-retinal microchip implants, an orienting device that reroutes visual information to the tongue, and even a car for the blind are either newly available or in trial. Vision technology may become a booming niche market within a few years, and Canada could be a player, adding a new chapter to a hidden Canadian story of frustrated innovation.
The expertise is here, says Mr. Rankin, which is why the technology-rich Ottawa area was a good place for eSight to be born. What isn't clear yet is to what extent private money is prepared to pitch in.
eSight Corp. came out of the personal experience of founder Conrad Lewis, a telecom executive whose family has been affected by Stargardt's disease, a genetic condition that can cause severe central-vision loss. Mr. Rankin says that when he became company CEO three years ago, he was surprised by how little technological innovation had been applied to the serious vision deficits that afflict an estimated one million Canadians, according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Mr. Rankin was also dismayed by how hard it was to stir up capital.
"People tend to invest in things they're already familiar with," he says. "And the funding environment in Canada is not as well developed as in other markets, especially in venture capital." In the end, he found sufficient private backing and got the $10-million project to market, with help from the Ontario government and the National Research Council, which drastically reoriented itself last spring as an agency dedicated to marketable innovation.
Bogdan Ciobanu, vice-president of the NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program, says "a lot of angel investors don't have the technical skills to assess a new technology." His agency's R&D grants to 3,037 companies last year averaged $90,000 per company, a small fraction of what most needed to move their ideas toward commercialization, but NRC approval is worth a lot more in terms of assuring investors that a project is technically sound, he says.
Not so long ago, the NRC had difficulty seeing the commercial potential of projects even in its own labs. James Swail, a blind researcher who worked at the NRC for four decades, pioneered several advanced technologies for people with low or no vision, including an ultrasonic object detector, tactile or audible thermometer readouts, and voice synthesizers that anticipated those now used for text-to-speech software – all before he retired in 1985 (he died in 2005). None was ever commercialized by the NRC, though U.S. companies have since rediscovered Mr. Swail's innovations.
"He actively manufactured the synthesizers in our basement," says Mr. Swail's son Carl, who also had a career as an NRC researcher. "He probably made and sold a few hundred of them." But aside from a collapsible white cane he developed, Mr. Swail Sr. was unable to get his innovations to a broad market, Carl says, in spite of personal networking through the CNIB and among Ottawa's financial community.
When governments started to wake up to the potential of high-tech industries, the repurposing of the NRC began, culminating in the change last spring, which eliminated what Mr. Ciobanu called "curiosity-driven research" in favour of pursuits with "a very strong industry-partnership orientation." eSight was right in its bailiwick, and an NRC grant attracted private investors interested in medical projects.
But that pool of private capital, according to CNIB president John Rafferty, is constrained by the low profile of sight impairment as an issue, relative to AIDS or cancer. Society hasn't quite figured out how to deal with the blind and low-vision people, he says, and that has had an effect on industry and financing. He's well aware that the CNIB's online store contains little that wasn't available 30 years ago.
"From a research perspective in Canada, we underfund things that are vision related," Mr. Rafferty says. "But I think at some point, we will see a device that causes a paradigm shift. I don't know yet if eSight is the one to do it."
Richard Meadows, a Montreal venture capitalist and managing partner in the biotech-oriented CTI Life Sciences Fund, says the shortage of funds for vision-related projects isn't due to societal attitudes toward the blind, but to the lure of other, mostly pharmaceutical investments. If you take a stake in drug research that pans out, he says, the rewards can be enormous and rapid.
"You don't have a huge blockbuster kind of effect with a medical appliance," Mr. Meadows says. But prime biotech opportunities are entering a cyclical lull, he says, which could reverse the flow. "I see much more interest now in eye disorders," he says. Valeant, Canada's largest drug company, seems to agree: It has bought three opthalmological companies in the past two years, including Bausch + Lomb.
Another problem for niche startups, Mr. Meadows says, is that many venture capital funds have minimum investment levels, which can dilute the founders' stake to a degree they may find unacceptable. That's especially likely when Canadians look to the more robust U.S. financial community for capital – a good reason to keep projects here, he says.
Mr. Rankin, meanwhile, anticipates a steep price drop for technologies such as eSight over the next two decades, as an aging population finds itself more in need of help with severe vision loss. "We're really at the start of a new era for people with low vision," he says.