Med Tech Talks
Bionic eye commercialisation with Ash Attia
An Australian bionic eye shows promise of giving functional vision back to people who have lost their sight due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa.
Being developed by Bionic Vision Technology (BVT), the bionic eye system came out of research at the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), CSIRO and ANU.
In this episode of Med Tech Talks, Robert Klupacs is joined by BVT CEO Dr Ash Attia to discuss the research commercialisation journey of the bionic eye, and the upcoming large-scale clinical trials of this revolutionary technology.
In this episode you will hear about:
Find out more about : Dr Ash Attia and Bionic Vision Texhnologies
Learn more about the development of Australia’s Bionic eye.
Find out more about : Dr Ash Attia and Bionic Vision Texhnologies
Learn more about the development of Australia’s Bionic eye.
Dr Ash Attia [00:01:20] Thank you very much, Robert, Then thank you for having me. I much appreciate it.
Robert Klupacs [00:01:28] Ash Let’s start at the beginning. The bionic eye, people have been talking about it for the last 15 years, I think, in Australia. But but what is it? And not just to give you some guidance about where I’m going. Every time I talk to people, they tell me. Is that something like what Steve Austin had when he was the bionic man? Can you just for our listeners explain what the bionic eye actually is and what you’re trying to achieve?
Dr Ash Attia [00:01:52] Sure, sure. The bionic eye is the kind of things that maybe at one stage used to be science fiction, but now it’s reality. What it is, basically is it’s an implanted system behind the retina that basically allows people who have lost their vision entirely due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa to regain back some vision that they can function with. We call that functional vision. And what that allows these people to do is really quite nothing short of miraculous. They are able to regain independence, confidence and do the things that perhaps people who have not lost their eyesight take completely, completely for an advantage. For example, they are able to recognise their loved ones, communicate, socialise with other people, find the empty seats, recognised street signs and you know, on pathways, all the things that again we take for granted that these people have lost and now that they can regain.
Robert Klupacs [00:03:12] That’s fantastic in very helpful for their listeners to understand what you’re trying to achieve. As I said at the beginning, Ash, you’ve had quite the career and your resumé is quite outstanding. Can you tell the listeners some of your career highlights what you’ve learned along the way, and then in particular the skills that you’ve obtained, how you’re using them in your current situation at BVT.
Dr Ash Attia [00:03:37] Thank you, Robert. So really, the highlights of my career career started when I finished my Masters degree and I was hired by Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City in their otolaryngology department or EMT, as we call it, the ear, nose and throat, to design a prosthesis for people who had lost their voice entirely by removing part of their vocal cords after a cancer or tumour procedure, a removal of a cancerous tumour. And I was able to do that and actually published some papers on not only about prosthetics but how to analyse the signal and give them back the ability to have a voice after they’ve completely lost their voice. That was a significant highlight that allowed me to actually do that kind of research and experience to join the nucleus group here in Australia, which embarked on what at that time was a science fiction. That is, how do we save people from sudden cardiac death who simply cannot wait until they get an ambulance and they may get an implant, a defibrillator or an external defibrillator to them? These people are not people who are having a heart attack. These people are having a very dangerous, disturbed disturbance of their cardiac rhythm arrhythmia, and they die within a minute. So we needed to translate a very big machine called defibrillator at that time into a tiny machine that gets implanted into these people to save millions and millions of lives. But those people basically get treated and shock out of the rhythm that they’re in, which is very dangerous in a matter of seconds. And given the experience I’ve had in New York, that was the experience that was lacking in the design of this kind of, again, what was called science fiction at the time. Fast forward, we were able to design one of the very first implant, in the world that is now, of course, the standard of medicine and standard of care for the millions and millions of people around the world who suffer from fighting cardiac death. Then after that, I have joined again an Australian company that was at the forefront of designing an artificial heart condition, ventricular assist. And from there, again taking it to a technology that was revolutionary in today’s clinical care that is able to keep a heart, lung, liver out of patients and out of donors for quite a long time until a recipient patient gets it. What I’ve learned through all this there is that nothing is worth doing, nothing if it’s worth doing. It’s usually fraught with a lot of difficulties, and that requires patience and perseverance. I have also learned a great deal that planning and execution is very important to patients and patients. Welfare and quality comes first and and last but not least, to focus on the job at hand and not be too focussed. So these are just some of the highlights I’ve had aside from the commercial highlights, of course, of commercialising each and every single one of those technology from concept to now being standard of care.
Robert Klupacs [00:07:48] And do you think all that learning is helping you would be that today, Ash?
Dr Ash Attia [00:07:53] There’s no doubt about it, because we’ve seen is basically once again, a journey from a concept that really is one of the concepts of the time to now the ability to develop and commercialise the technology that we are hoping will become the standard of care for those who have absolutely no alternative anywhere in the world today, whether by pharmacy or pharmacology or pharmaceutical medicine or any other therapy at the moment that is viable to give it to them. So again, it’s a it’s a journey through concept research and development commercialisation, of course.
Robert Klupacs [00:08:43] Interesting. So just on that. So a lot of people have been following the bionic eye journey. It’s been it seems to been around forever. But as you’ve just said, these things take time for our listeners. Can you just summarise what the next steps are in the next few years to take, as you say, from the concept from where you are today to get this to market?
Dr Ash Attia [00:09:05] Well, absolutely. But first, I have to say that where we are today is due to the incredible work that has taken place at the Bionics Institute and the development of the design and the development of the what we call the Channel 44. Let’s say I’ll just call a generation two for ease. And the Generation two system of the bionic eye has finished the clinical trial and the trial has been published and the results are quite outstanding. Now, of course we need to take it to a level where it could be commercialised and manufactured on a large scale. So the Generation three is what’s next. It builds on all of what we learned from Generation one and Generation two. Again, thanks to the incredible amount of work that the volunteers between CSIRO and all of our research and development partners. We are now planning for a generation that will give people tremendous improvement in terms of their ability to navigate locations, use of artificial intelligence with a system that’s smaller, easier to implant, and a system that will ultimately also be used with other therapies that are showing some prospects out there, but also genetics, for example, that are showing a great deal of potential and the combination of which may be very useful to to the patients out there.
Robert Klupacs [00:10:47] And how long do you think it will be before you’ve been able to complete that and had the bionic eye on the market? Is it 2026, 2028?
Dr Ash Attia [00:10:56] Well, if we secure the funding that we are looking forward to go to the next stage and get to the very last clinical trial, which is we call a pivotal trial in the US, Europe and Australia, we should be able to release this product on a commercial basis for the market around 2026. Robert Klupacs [00:11:16] Fantastic. That’s really I think that’s a lot quicker than a lot of people understand that because they understand you’ve achieved breakthrough designation from the FDA. Is that part of that?
Dr Ash Attia [00:11:27] Because part of that is, of course, a breakthrough. There’s a mission, but a great part of that is the great work that has taken that has been put in place really since 2010. Robert, as you know very well and has taken a tremendous amount of effort and and dedication by an incredible team of people, again, at the Bionics Institute, CSIRO, University of Melbourne, etc.. And we are now building on all of this great work.
Robert Klupacs [00:11:58] It’s fantastic and we all wish you great success. And I know who had all the team there was through. I just want to change tack a little bit because I’m fascinated to have some of your experience on the on the podcast today, and so I want to get your thoughts more generic thoughts at a high level, if that’s okay. And I’m really interested, given that you’ve studied, worked in the United States, you’ve worked across Asia-Pacific and now you spent a lot of time with Australian companies, both successful start up and the like. In your view, in your experience, what does Australia do well, and that may take industry? And what can we learn from other countries to improve our pathways to commercialisation?
Dr Ash Attia [00:12:38] What Australia does well, and there’s not a doubt in my mind because I have experience with in many other countries, including the United States, I lived in Japan as well and in Hong Kong and Germany. We have top class minds here when it comes to research and development, science and engineering and medicine. Not a doubt in my mind. We have a quite a stable regulatory system, although could be improved. We have a reasonably okay reimbursement. But what I think we can learn a great deal from other countries. But I keep my eyes operated in first hand, as in the United States, Germany and China, is that the funds that are made available for the research and development, the incentives, government incentives in terms of grants and money available so as not only to research, to research and develop, but to manufacture and commercialise. I think this is what Australia lacks a great deal of particularly manufacturing our own. You might recall Robert very well was part of the nucleus group out of which Cochlear was created, and it was created because of all the technology and knowledge that the nucleus group had with electronics, which used to be the number two player in the world for cardiac rhythm management. And we used to manufacture all of our products and so on in Lanco in, in New South Wales. And due to a government decision to cut all the incentives for manufacturing here, we had to take the manufacturing away from Australia and it was transferred to Miami and that was probably the very beginning of the end of that of that company. So I think the incentives in terms of grants and the funding that are available and the long term view because medical technology and medical devices is a long term view investment is I think what could be improved here in terms of what we do. Well, I will repeat top class people, upper class scientists and researchers and clinicians.
Robert Klupacs [00:15:05] And having been involved in a number of companies, you know, and again, this what we’d like Australia to have is a number of great companies, not just start up companies or stuff in development. So from your perspective, you’ve seen the good, the bad and the in between. What makes a great medtech company differentiates it from a okay or failing medtech company.
Dr Ash Attia [00:15:27] I think to me it is the proper planning and the execution. Attracting great talent and great companies tend to be focussed. Good companies or sometimes even failing companies. They failed because they lost focus. And it’s very easy in the medical device and music industry to lose focus of your core business because you have just been told about something exciting or you see something exciting and lose the focus. So it is very critical and I believe that is what makes a great company versus just a good company or even a failing company is their ability to execute on their plan. And again, to attract great talent and to focus, really focus and not be tempted to be distracted by all these other things that would be nice to do where really you need to focus all your efforts on what is critical to be done.
Robert Klupacs [00:16:28] We’ve known each other a long time, Ash, and thanks for reminding me about my weaknesses.
Dr Ash Attia [00:16:33] These are not your weaknesses.
Robert Klupacs [00:16:34] I’m sure you know, when you work in the academic sector, there’s so many sexy things to play out and we love to do this. But as you say, and you’ve reminded me a number of times, you can’t do them all. And as you also point before, there’s limited resources to do them all. So great advice.
Dr Ash Attia [00:16:50] And very, very easy when you are working with top class clinicians, which you absolutely do need to do. They have lots of ideas, but again, it’s very difficult to say, no wonderful idea, but let’s get down to our core business.
Robert Klupacs [00:17:05] I’m going to surprise you and I’m not going to tell people how old you are, but I know how old you are and you’ve got a wealth of experience. Grey hair, in fact, not that much hair left anymore, Ash, but that lack of hair, grey hair gives you wisdom. And we, you and I have been around lots of younger people now in recent times who look at entrepreneurship, look at MedTech, think I want to make lots of money and have lots of fun. What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur, scientist, engineer today who has a dream of doing my major things in medtech and making a translation from the bench to to to the clinic? What would you what would you tell them?
Dr Ash Attia [00:17:49] You used an excellent word and that is what would you tell an entrepreneur? And I’m focusing on this word because of what I’m about to say. So the entrepreneur needs to really know what it is that they’re looking at or wants to come up with. And is it is it an unmet needs? Well, if it’s an unmet needs and to do something about that that is wonderful can be identify or to the market that they want and that they would want to focus on, that’s fantastic. But that’s where it stops. After that, really the entrepreneurs and company with entrepreneurs, by and large entrepreneurs may not be good in managing. So it is excellent that for the entrepreneur to get out of the way or at least stick to what he or she knows and let the other people with the experience and the scars on their back to manage the several aspects of what it is to take something from design or entrepreneurial stage into a real product to real people out there with a commercial focus. Entrepreneur, by and large, tend to be distracted by all sorts of ideas in their heads. That’s fantastic, but they need to keep that in their heads and not be distracted. Go. Get out of the way. Hire grade people. Let them do the job and focus on the job at hand. And don’t try to get in their way. This is a mistake that I see a lot of entrepreneurs make.
Robert Klupacs [00:19:37] So then that may be part of the answer to the next question I’m going to ask you. So changing tack a little bit and one of the themes of these podcast is the value of mentorship and very keen to understand who your mentors were when you’re growing up, what advice they gave you and what you had to learn from them or you learnt yourself. In the last part of that question is maybe what you’ve answered before, but when you’re having to mentor people, what do you tell them and what do you try to get them to focus on?
Dr Ash Attia [00:20:07] I’ll start first with the latter part of the question. What do I tell people? I tell people what has been taught to me, and I found completely useful and and helpful in my own experience. Now, what is it that I have been told, or who are my mentors? I start first by two professors that I’ve had at basically the New Jersey Institute of Technology and University of Medicine and Dentistry is where I did my master’s degree. Professor Rissman and Professor Angela. I was mentored by Professor Nancy Arkle, who is a very well known cardiac transplant surgeon. Then I’ll bring it a little bit to home and to people have really I was very highly influenced by. And that’s Paul Traynor. I’m sure you know, the founder of the Nucleus Group and Catherine Livingston. These people really have told me a great deal about, importantly, what not to do. So one of the things you’ve always used to tell me is that first list you make, if you ever become a CEO, is what you do. That’s the first list you make. Then you go through what must be done, what is critical to be done. And that’s something that a lot of the times we, you know, a lot of people miss. Second is that if you’re going to hell, just keep going, because that’s what medical device, technology and research and development in an implantable products medical product will require is you will go through hell, but just keep going, don’t give up. And last but not least, is really from a commercial perspective or a management perspective. They said, listen, if you want to be a good manager or a good CEO in particular or a managing director, you must walk in in the shoes of the people who you’re going to be managing. So if you have a chance to be in sales, , have a chance to be in marketing, have a chance to be in regulatory, have a chance to be in product management, have a chance and to understand or know something about finance, you know, because at the end of the day, if you’re going to be a managing director, that’s worth anything. You need to understand the guy in front of you from sales and he tells you what his issues are. The guy from regulatory, that’s the guy from clinical. You know, you’re a finance person, so if you haven’t really walked in the shoes or tried to understand what they do, you you are a much less effective managing director or CEO. So walk in the shoes of the people that you’re going to be manage if you ever have the chance, because it would be very useful for you. And I have absolutely found that to be true.
Robert Klupacs [00:23:22] Well, I think there’s going to be a lot of people listening to your insights, particularly the younger listeners that we know we have. And yeah, what you said on much. I’ve never heard the medtech industry quite described as hell, but you’re probably right, actually. And let’s hope that we can get through those gates into heaven fairly soon.
Dr Ash Attia [00:23:40] And particularly particularly your other implantable devices, these are, you know, very critical in nature. And, you know, you know as well as I do, they are this is a difficult journey. It’s not it’s something that’s subjected to a lot of regulatory and clinical. And at the end of the day, you are putting something into someone that is doing something on a 24 hour basis and are very risky. And you really need to be at the very top of your game.
Robert Klupacs [00:24:14] But the reason we do it, notwithstanding the risk, is because it’s worth it.
Dr Ash Attia [00:24:18] Absolutely.
Robert Klupacs [00:24:20] Ash, we’ve reached the end of this podcast. I’ve got to say thank you so much for giving us your time and sharing some of those incredible insights. And. And to be honest, I’ve taken a few of them on myself about the medtech industry, entrepreneurship, a willingness to roll your sleeves up and be clever, and how we can improve innovation in Australia and and basically back ourselves and I think is pretty much what you’ve said. To our listeners. I hope you enjoyed listening and I look forward to introducing you to our guests in future podcasts. There are links to everything we talked about in the show notes and we look forward to welcoming you next time.
Dr Ash Attia, CEO of Bionic Vision Technologies
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