Dr. Barak Azmon, an ophthalmologist and serial entrepreneur, is convinced Israel can become a “meaningful player” in technologies relating to eyesight.
He and his partners are looking to raise some $75 million-$100 million in funds from foreign and local entities to invest in medical devices, drugs and vision care tools — like adaptive contact lenses — that will tackle eye diseases and help patients see better.
“We want to set up a VC fund, the first and only one in Israel dedicated to ophthalmology,” Azmon said in an interview from his central Tel Aviv office.
“We want to enlarge the field in Israel. There is a lot of potential here — we have good universities, a world-renowned ophthalmic community, strong data and artificial intelligence abilities that can combine nicely in this field.”
The idea, he said, is to create a hub that will incubate and grow new startups and technologies, which will then be sold on to large multinationals. “We are good at R&D, that is our strength,” he said. “But we are also willing to take the companies all the way to growth, if needed. We are aiming to have five to seven new companies in three to four years.”
The hub will finance and mentor new ideas by the fund’s partners, and possibly developments of a variety of entrepreneurs who come to the hub with an interesting concept as well. “We will be looking at the field and seeing what kind of developments the industry is interested in,” he said.
The fund, which doesn’t have a name yet, has already got commitments from foreign enterprises, which Azmon did not name. “We still need more funding,” he said, revealing that the fund now has two US partners and three Israeli partners.
The initiative comes as the Israeli government is trying to position Israel as a global leader in digital healthcare, allocating NIS 1 billion ($283 million) to a program that aims to create a digital database of medical files of some 100,000 residents within the next five years.
The ophthalmic equipment market is expected to reach $58.44 billion by 2023, fueled by a rapid growth of the geriatric population, a rising incidence of eye diseases, technological advancements in ophthalmic devices and increasing government programs to control visual impairment, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
There some 60 active Israeli companies in the ophthalmology field, “a significantly high number relative to the size of the country,” said Sharon Kaplinsky, the founder and CEO of Star Tree Ventures, an Israel-based business development and corporate finance consultancy that specializes in life sciences. Of these firms, some 25 are device companies, 17 are in therapeutics and 21 specialize in digital health.
“Multinational companies and investors recognize Israel as a global innovation hub in the field,” said Kaplinsky.
In the past year, a number of Israeli ophthalmology companies managed to raise “substantial funds,” Kaplinsky said, including EyeYon, which developed therapeutic contact lenses to treat various corneal diseases; Belkin Laser, which developed a laser treatment for glaucoma; OrCam, which developed a device to assist people who are visually impaired; Regenera, which is developing a drug it hopes will restore neural function in people with neurological and neurodegenerative diseases; and 6over6, which allows users to perform their own eye vision tests via a smartphone. Others, like iOptima, a maker of minimally invasive surgical ophthalmic devices, have been acquired.
“We expect this trend to continue, as new Israeli companies are emerging rapidly,” she said.
Azmon and his partner, Dr. Yair Alster, set up Notal Vision in 2000. The Manassas, Virginia-based firm has an R&D center in Tel Aviv that employs some 75 workers.
Notal Vision has created a home device that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to monitor patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that can cause legal blindness, a level of vision loss that impairs daily functionality. The ForeSeeHome Age-related Macular Degeneration Monitor is the first FDA-cleared system for the home and is one of the few home medical devices and the only ophthalmology home device to be reimbursed by Medicare, a national social insurance program, in the US.
Azmon and Alster have also set up additional companies: Pres-by is developing accommodative contact lenses that mimic the eye lenses and thus the vision of young people; another company is developing a drug for patients with dry eye syndrome, a condition associated with irritation, redness and discharge in the eyes; and a third is working on a low-cost, high-quality retinal camera that uses artificial intelligence to analyze results, helping doctors diagnose diseases such as glaucoma and diabetes and better monitor patients’ health.
Azmon will be chairing the ophthalmology medical devices track at Israel’s life science conference and exhibition at MIXiii BIOMED 2018, May 15-17 in Tel Aviv.
“The ophthalmology field in Israel has developed in recent years,” he said. “When we started our research activities in Israel some 20 years ago, it was difficult to find talent in the field. But today more people are active in the sector, both in development and in management, and the industry is growing. We want to home in on that potential.”