ODocs Eye Care developed from a simple question: Can you convert a smartphone into a retinal camera?
Drs Hong Shieng Chong and Benjamin O’Keeffe up with the answer very quickly. “Yes, you can, and within three months of research and development, we had developed a functional prototype smartphone-based retinal camera,” says Dr Hong.
Together they founded oDocs, a social for-profit enterprise, in 2014 in Wellington. “Our goal is to end preventable blindness by developing and distributing affordable smartphone-based diagnostic devices and systems,” says Dr Hong Shieng Chiong. “By using an iPhone, oDocs can provide optometrists with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment for just a few hundred dollars.”
That cost element is critical. As Dr Hong said in New Zealand Entrepreneur in 2016, “… I don’t believe conventional medical equipment should cost that much. There is a huge mark up in prices by the time equipment gets certified and gets to the market”.
ODocs has commercialised four generations of devices, with the oDocs nun being the most popular, and is now developing its seventh generation imaging camera. However, while the company has sold over 100 oDocs nun to date in 2019, New Zealand is a very small market.
“We have few than 1000 optometrists and around 150 ophthalmologists. This makes the New Zealand market less than five percent of our revenue. The big market is exports which account for 95 percent of our revenue consistently in the last four years.”
oDocs has launched an open-source platform on GitHub where its device designs are available for free. “We hope this will encourage a few other manufacturers, companies or even individuals, to improve and manufacture the devices in large scale, making them available in regions most in need,” says Dr Hong.
Within the next 12 months, oDocs will expand its R&D team in the software engineering and deep learning sector. They’re aiming to develop a proprietary mobile app allowing users to perform AI experiments and analyses, adding overall value to the ophthalmic imaging system.
The longer term plan is to enter the pharmaceutical sector where oDocs can start offering therapeutics for actual treatment, starting with their CureMyopia programme in 2020.
Dr Hong says their core hardware business will form commercial partnerships in one region/continent at a time, fostering slow but steady growth. Expansion projects such as CureMyopia will be spun off, becoming fully commercialised projects with oDocs owning a share. He sees oDocs as a holding company that owns multiple platform businesses in the ophthalmic field, with every business having the potential for positive global impacts.
There are still challenges, particularly around funding and regulation. He says it hasn’t been easy to sell the social enterprise concept to potential investors, requiring the team to “bootstrap” it all the way through in the last four years. In turn, this has limited oDocs’ ability to market globally because of the cost.
Despite these challenges, Dr Hong says knowing that what you do will touch millions, if not billions of lives, positively is what makes it exciting.