Supporting the vision of eye care for all

21 February 2021
Expo Live Innovation Impact grant recipient oDocs Eye Care is striving to improve access to preventive treatment

The Expo Live Innovation Impact Grant Programme (IIGP) was established to elevate social enterprises, non-profits and startups that are aligned to environmental or humanitarian causes.

One of the recipients of the grant is New Zealand-based oDocs Eye Care, a company that specialises in building open-source, affordable diagnostic imaging equipment.

The company’s goal is to end preventable blindness, according to its founders Hong Sheng Chiong and Benjamin O’Keeffe, a pair of doctors who have developed smartphone-enabled eye-care solutions.

The doctors have created a functional fundus camera that attaches to a smartphone and allows a doctor to look at the back of a patient’s eye to make basic diagnoses.

Patents for the device have been released online for free, making it the first open-source eye equipment in the world. With access to the patents, healthcare providers worldwide can 3D print the camera.

In the fourth cycle of the IIGP, oDocs secured $100,000 in funding, making it the first New Zealand company to receive an Expo Live grant.

Preventive care

For Chiong, it all started in 2007 when he was working in a rural clinic in Mombasa, Kenya, located almost 200 kilometres from the nearest hospital. The clinic lacked the necessary equipment to make basic diagnoses.

Chiong was confronted with the challenges of caring for patients when, unlike in developed nations such as New Zealand, access to medical equipment and expertise is severely limited.

“I began to notice the basic things we take for granted,” says Chiong. “In many rural areas, you do not have equipment to even conduct a basic diagnosis. That triggered me a little bit. I started to think, what can we do to fix this problem?”

Visual impairment and blindness are global problems, with 285 million people around the world suffering from a variety of conditions, 80 per cent of which are preventable or treatable. Unfortunately, as Chiong discovered, 90 per cent of those cases are found in developing countries.

The idea to use a smartphone to look into and assess the condition of a patient’s eye came to Chiong a year or two later, but the necessary technology was not yet available.

It was in 2014, when smartphone camera technology had improved sufficiently, that Chiong started to experiment with different types of lenses and imaging techniques.

Within three months, oDocs had designed a fully functional lens smartphone attachment for retinal imaging that could be 3D printed.

Six years later, oDocs is an award-winning medical technology social enterprise. Its mission is to save the sight of 1 million people by 2030.

Long-term vision

oDocs aims to develop a series of affordable and accessible ophthalmic diagnostic tools, including retinal cameras and optical coherence tomography scanning machines.

Recently, oDocs Eye Care was recognised as a host research organisation by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. The company is also collaborating with international organisations to help extend their global reach, such as Choithram Netralaya, a specialist eye-care provider in India; Blind Low Vision Foundation, which supports vision-impaired people in New Zealand; and Australia’s Fred Hollows Foundation, which focuses on treating and preventing blindness and vision problems.

oDocs also has research collaborations with the University of Auckland, University of Otago and University of Canterbury in New Zealand; and the University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney in Australia.

“We have plans to increase our research and development capacity ... and will actively look for international collaborators,” says Chiong.

“A few new products are in the design stage and we are hoping to successfully launch them to market.

“We also have plans to enter the pharmaceutical field in the coming years, focusing on innovative myopia control techniques.”

Even with the support Expo Live, creating and growing a profitable social enterprise is not without its challenges, particularly amid the global pandemic.

“We used $30,000 from the Expo Live [grant] as an emergency fund to work on a different pathway that was not planned prior to the global pandemic,” says Hong. “We diverted more resources to develop a teleophthalmology platform in New Zealand, which could help eye-care practices deal with fallout from the pandemic, thus strengthening operations in the future.”

Chiong adds that he believes the Expo Live programme and Expo 2020 will offer a host of benefits, beyond the valuable funding.

“Expo 2020 Dubai is an event that showcases passion and people,” he says. “What I noticed about Expo Live is that participating has connected us with [a broad range of] innovations.

“For a social enterprise like oDocs Eye Care, it is not just about showing our product on a world stage. It is about sharing the idea and the passion behind it, in the hope of potentially inspiring millions, if not touching the lives of billions,” he concludes.

With insights from New Zealand at Expo 

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