Bionic Vision Technologies, has secured $23.5 million from international investors to manufacture the next generation 'bionic eye'.
Initially an idea raised at Australia's 2020 Summit, the Bionic Eye project is now set to produce tangible health benefits.
In 2009, the Bionic Vision Australia consortium led by the University of Melbourne was one of two teams selected under the ARC's $50 million four years one-off Special research in bionic vision science and technology initiative. It had to share the prize with Monash University, though, which received $8 million, but that still left a whooping $42 million for Bionic Vision. In any case, in 2013 it received another $8 million top up from the ARC.
Monash's approach based on a camera connected wirelessly to a brain implant under the skull at the back of the head.
Bionic Vision, however, is more ambitious in trying to replace defective retinas. This also requires a camera, but the image data are processed and sent to a retinal implant that stimulates remaining patient cells in the retina.
With the race on, and groups around the world backed by hundreds of millions of dollars' in funding trying to create similar devices, the pressure to succeed was on too. Their was also criticism about the funding process. For example, some media reports pointed out that ophthalmologists Minas Corneo and Vive Chowdhury had already developed a prototype prosthesis but received no funding to take the product further.
Almost a decade later, however, both ARC funded projects have made substantial progress. Monash Vision Group has prototyped its vision system called Gennaris, and is about to undertake proof-of-concept studies in patients.
Meanwhile, Bionic Vision developed a 22 channel prototype retinal implant which it successfully tested in three patients with retinitis pigmentosa.
While that device was meant to be used in a laboratory setting, Bionic Vision has now made the step up to a 44 channel device which is expected to enter clinical trials in 2017.
The product is expected to initially provide light perception and enable some vision to blind patients with degenerative retinal conditions.
And BVI has managed to convince international investors that the product will be a success, as evidenced by the $18 million commitment from Hong Kong based China Huarong International Holdings Limited and State Path Capital Limited BVI.
State Path Capital's chairman said that the investment "aligns with our strategy of backing transformative new technology with significant global potential".
This is based on estimates by the US National Eye Institute that 1 in 4,000 people have retinitis pigmentosa worldwide.
ARC's acting chief executive officer Leanne Harvey said in a statement that Bionic Vision's technology is "an impressive example of the translation of publicly funded research into real world economic and social outcomes".