Is there anything you’d rather be doing more than catching up with ophthalmology colleagues online? How about meeting and greeting in one of the world’s leading medical and technology centers, situated alongside the Mediterranean in glorious sunshine? If only, for most of us.
While we would certainly prefer to be indulging in the world’s best hummus and shakshuka in Tel Aviv’s bauhaus cafes, it’s fitting that Israel’s Ophthalmology Innovation Summit (OIS@Israel) went ahead online. The startup nation is characterized as being quick to adopt the latest technology and was one of the first countries to lock down in response to coronavirus. Restrictions have now been lifted in the country, which has only experienced 303 fatalities.
Israel is one of the world’s leading destinations for medical tourism and the country is at the forefront of medical research and innovation. Medical facilities in the country offer cutting-edge treatment for a variety of ophthalmological conditions ranging from eye microsurgery to strabismus treatment. Characterized by rapidity in utilizing the latest technology to cure and treat eye conditions, Israel’s ophthalmology industry is a world leader.
A Time for Everything, Even Online
The OIS@Israel 2020 was originally scheduled to be held in Tel Aviv, Israel’s economic heart. According to the conference’s organizers, the country was chosen due to its strategic location, record of technological innovation and attractiveness to venture capitalists.
The summit was originally conceived by Emmett T. Cunningham Jr., MD, PhD, MPH, of Blackstone Life Sciences, a multinational business investment group. OIS has held events in the United States for a number of years and 2020 was due to be the event’s inaugural event in Israel. Coronavirus obviously waylaid that plan — and while a “real life” meeting would naturally be preferable, Dr. Cunningham and his fellow organizers acquitted themselves well.
The online summit was structured as a two-hour webinar with an additional hour for networking. The first segment, OIS@Israel Company Showcase, served to highlight local Israeli companies working in ophthalmology. The second segment, Industry Insights and Innovating Internationally, examined the ophthalmology industry more broadly.
AI Dominates Discussion in Israel
A number of leading ophthalmology and medical companies from Israel presented during the first segment of the conference. While all of the presenters worked in various fields within the ophthalmological industry, all were similarly characterized by a focus on technological innovation and ingenuity.
In particular, discussions about artificial intelligence (AI) accounted for a large segment of the presentation session. This is unsurprising as Israel is also a world leader in AI technology and a number of multinational AI developers have operations located in the country.
Yaacov Michlin, the chairman of DiagnosTear, discussed how his company uses AI-driven technology to treat dry eye. The condition’s commonality makes the condition an excellent testing ground for AI-driven solutions, noted Mr. Michlin. His company’s diagnostic companion device, TeaRx™, can be used at home and represents the vanguard of a combined science approach.
“DiagnosTear is a great example of Israeli innovation, combining chemistry, biology and AI into what we call bio-convergence,” shared Mr. Michlin.
SensEyez also uses AI-based machine learning technology in ophthalmology. The company is working on what it describes as game-changing retinal imaging technology for teleretinal screening and monitoring called Snapshot Multispectral Fundus Imaging. It uses machine-learning algorithms to detect retinal abnormalities that cannot be seen in standard fundus color images.
Notal Vision’s CEO Kester Nahen was one of the next industry leaders to present his company. His team uses patient self-operated devices and real-time AI-enabled data interpretation to provide home diagnostic services, offering a tailor made care experience for patients.
Notal Vision’s ForeseeHome device is the first ophthalmic home diagnostic tool with Level 1 evidence and reimbursement system. The HOME study has shown that 94% of patients whose conversion to wet AMD is detected by this home diagnostic tool retain their functional vision (≥20/40).
AI-enabled ophthalmology is also a specialty of another presenting company, NovaSight. One of its flagship products is NovaSight’s CureSight™ which allows for treatment for amblyopia at home, worth noting given the recent explosion in the uptake of telemedicine technology. The glasses-based system is designed specifically for children and was developed to ensure a high degree of functionality.
“Kids hate eye patches, they don’t look good, they don’t see well, so they just remove them. We’re talking about a less than 40% compliance rate and a 25% recurrence,” said Ran Yam, the CEO and co-founder of NovaSight. “That’s why we came up with the home treatment device. The kid wears glasses watching his favorite internet content on any device. The glasses blur the image in the strong eye and the kid only needs to use it for one hour a day,” he added.
How Can Ophthalmology Learn from Israel?
The conference’s second session was given over to detailed discussion about ophthalmology in general. The panel, which included ophthalmologists from Israel, Singapore, France, the United States and the United Kingdom, also focused on the wider impact of coronavirus on the industry. The six main participants all reported their appreciation for Israel and the country’s ophthalmology industry.
The consensus of the panel was that the coronavirus pandemic means increasingly innovative solutions are required. Laurent Attias, a member of Alcon’s executive committee, believes companies need to consider a target product profile (TPP) when embracing new innovation. This can be a scientific or technical focus, but the TPP concept is needed to shape innovative products to meet market needs.
Dr. Prahbu Velusami, a senior developer at Johnson & Johnson London Innovation Center, agreed with Mr. Attias’s comments about innovation and pointed to Israel as a good example of a receptive business culture. He also said that ophthalmologists should look at gene therapy and cell therapy. A major focus in Israel, Dr. Velusami said these could be conducted with AI research.
“There’s such a density of talent in Israel and the ecosystem from the funding perspective is extremely attractive to innovate there,” Dr. Velusami said. “I’ve seen a lot of companies there that are virtual, and this is going to be a trend that increases in the coming years. Innovation doesn’t happen in just a couple of concentrated areas,” he added.
As the session drew to a close, the discussion shifted to the fundamentals of how ophthalmological business will change due to coronavirus. Two issues were noted in particular. Firstly, the backlog in elective surgery offers an opportunity for private healthcare providers. Secondly, research companies should look to run trials in more countries to mitigate the damage of coronavirus related lockdowns.
Dr. William J. Link, the host of the session and managing director at Versant Ventures, closed the conference by thanking the participants and sounding an optimistic note about the pandemic. He said that business is already getting back to normal. Dr. Link also shared his vision of the nexus required for successful innovation going forward.
“We need the inventor, the entrepreneur, the doctor and the key opinion makers, the early adopters. Each of these constituencies was represented today, so thank you,” Dr. Link said.
Editor’s Note: OIS@Israel Virtual 2020, OIS’s first international meeting, was held on June 18. Reporting for this story also took place at OIS@Israel Virtual 2020.