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Contact Lenses: Differentiation via Technology

Published in Healthcare

Contact Lens
The previous wave of innovation in the contact lens market focused on wearer comfort. Will the next wave of innovation focus on usability? Charlie Constable discusses possible avenues for innovation in the contact lens market.

The contact lens market has entered a challenging phase. Consumers increasingly prefer to buy online. Contact lens users are therefore buying without advice from an optometrist, which accentuates price as a point of comparison between offerings. This trend towards online is only expected to accelerate, so premium brands will need to further differentiate their product to reclaim the competitive advantage.

Contact lens manufacturers have navigated this challenge to innovate before. Over the last fifty years, several new technologies have been adopted: soft contact lenses, daily disposables and novel oxygen-permeable materials have all transformed the market in their time. 

Each of these developments focused on users and how to improve the experience of wearing contact lenses, particularly comfort. As a long-term contact lens user, and an engineer, I’m highly invested in searching for the next key development for this market.

Key points in this blog:

  • Learning from contact lens "dropouts"
  • Avenues for contact lens differentiation
  • Brand as part of product differentiation


Contact lens “dropouts” give clues for innovation

One way to investigate which technologies might transform the market is to consider which factors users find difficult, or dislike, and ultimately lead to them no longer using contact lenses. Some of the most significant are:

Workflow

Most contact lens users dislike at least one of the steps of using contact lenses, such as touching their eyes, identifying the inside of the lenses or cleaning them. Even something as simple as the foil on lens packaging ripping unpredictably has been noted as a source of user frustration.

Sustainability

With the rise of disposable daily contact lenses, and the growing consumer environmental awareness, many users are now concerned by the amount of plastic thrown away every day. Typically, this waste is not recycled due to the complexity of recycling mixed materials. Recent studies in the UK suggest that only 3% of users recycle their lenses, but 77% report a desire to recycle the plastic associated with their lenses [1]. This is leading some contact lens users to pursue other corrective sight options such as laser eye surgery or glasses to decrease their environmental footprint.

Choice

As a rule, users feel empowered by being able to customise products so long as they understand the choices they are making. When it comes to contact lenses, choices are often about cosmetic features. For instance, among younger users who are more motivated to wear lenses for aesthetic reasons, there is growing interest in coloured lenses [2]. This is one of the reasons new ranges of lenses with a wide variety of colours are being released [3]. A lack of choice can lead to disengagement over time as users grow tired of the limited options.

Age

Existing contact lens offerings appear to have a ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to age. Usage drops off dramatically after the age of 45 as users begin to experience presbyopia [4]. Multifocal lenses have been developed to improve the offering for these users, but there is still an appetite for a more robust solution which will support users into later life. At the other end of the age scale, some young children find it difficult to learn to use and care for contact lenses, limiting uptake amongst this population with a growing prevalence of myopia [5].

Avenues for contact lens differentiation

There are many ways contact lenses can be improved to escape a race to the bottom on price. Below, we look at a small number of potential solutions to the above challenges, some of which appear to hold excellent opportunities.

Workflow

A shift in the contact lens workflow can create many positive improvements for users. For instance, a lens that would not require daily insertion and removal would reduce the number of times users needed to touch their eyes, well known to be a significant pain point among contact lens users. 

One way to achieve this is to push the limits of extended wear contact lenses. Lenses which can be worn continuously for as long as a month have been available for some time now, but there are still challenges associated with infection [6]. The development of silicone-hydrogels has significantly reduced this risk. However, work remains to be done in reducing these rates to be comparable with daily disposable lenses.

More radically, workflow could be differentiated with contact lenses that do not require removal. A lens that would be stable when inserted but then dissolve overnight, perhaps with the addition of an activation agent via a spray or eye drop, would be one way to achieve this. 

This exciting possibility has been investigated before, although primarily from the point of view of delivering a drug rather than improving the user experience [7]. Clearly, this entails technical challenges such as how to maintain stability through the day whilst ensuring full dissolution overnight; or how to deliver an agent to begin the dissolution reliably in a way users respond to positively. Notably, there may also be gains to be had here against other points of user frustration: for instance, microplastic pollution would clearly decrease as lenses are no longer discarded.

Lenses that would not have an inside and an outside are also interesting. Users often struggle with identifying the correct orientation of their lenses. Some companies have attempted to make the direction clear and obvious with etching or colour variation [8] – with some success. An even more simple-to-use lens would not have one correct orientation, and hence allow us to remove one user step entirely. The major technical challenge to overcome for such lenses is the optics. There are several avenues to explore which could offer solutions to this, but one possibility may be to have lenses that adopt the correct shape upon warming once on the eye. 

Smart contact lenses

One alternative direction of development is the much-discussed "smart" contact lenses that contain some form of electronics to provide additional functionality. There are many concept stage demonstrations of a range of technologies, from a telescopic lens to ones which show a heads-up display. These may be useful in specific settings but are unlikely to penetrate the mass market any time soon. 

Drug-eluting contact lenses

Drug-eluting contact lenses are now well recognised as a direction for product differentiation. A wide variety of drugs can be eluted usefully, whether this is over the counter to target dry eye or hay fever, or even all the way to glaucoma or steroid treatments via prescription. 

The potential for drug-eluting contact lenses to improve the user experience goes beyond the addition of a single medicinal agent. On the one hand, such contact lenses could reduce the need for eye drops, which are disliked by many users [9]. This may also encourage users to persist with contact lens use as they age, given the perception of eye droppers amongst these users. On the other hand, one could go much further by offering a more personalised lens service with treatments for the changing needs of every individual. 

Many groups have investigated drug eluting lenses over the last ten years, and technical challenges still exist, for instance around consistent release over the day. However, the area is ripe for innovation and technical success would offer great improvements for both manufacturers and users.

Brand as part of product differentiation

Of course, other aspects of development that are less technologically focused could improve market share and help companies to escape the race to the bottom. Brand strategy is an important way to grow market share, as we discuss in our TTP blog Designing for experience. Of course, what good branding means varies, but it should always help the user connect with the product. 

In the contact lens market, that might look like a single brand which grows with you over time, starting with simple soft lenses for myopia but adapting to you as your needs change towards more complex lenses and treatments. Building that kind of loyalty can be a valuable way to improve a firm’s offering alongside technological developments.

Where will the next wave of innovation come from?

Any of these technical avenues of improvement – and others – could trigger the next wave of innovation in the contact lens market. New technologies are being conceived continuously that have the potential to be transform the market. 

Drug eluting contact lenses are currently seen as the development direction that has the greatest likelihood of transforming the contact lens market, given that a wide range of applications and strong improvements for the user are possible. Forward-looking companies that find and invest in the right technologies are certainly going to reap the rewards from this exciting next phase in the contact lens market.

TTP has a long history in developing innovative products in ophthalmology. From novel optics for contact lenses and IOLs, to innovative drug delivery and surgical systems, we are always looking for ways to address patient, healthcare professional and industry needs. Please contact us if you would like to discuss anything in this blog, or in technology for ophthalmology more generally.

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