Novartis-Google smart lenses (photography Novartis/Google)

Will Google and Swiss drugmaker Novartis’ new “smart” contact lenses make medical history? The jury’s still out.
The Google-Novartis venture is the first such deal between Big Tech and Big Pharma.
First revealed as a Google prototype in January, the announcement that the two giants are teaming up is a major step forward for the project. The firms claim the lens will help diabetics track their blood sugar levels by measuring the level of glucose in the wearer’s tears. This information can be communicated to a mobile phone or computer.

The companies also plan to work on a version of the lens adapted for people who can no longer read without glasses. The device uses a tiny wireless chip and miniaturised glucose sensors embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. In a video, Brian Otis from the Google’s secretive X Lab explained to Associated Press how it would work. Novartis said in a statement that the technology had “the potential to transform eye care”.
The next steps are unclear but Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez told the Financial Times he would be “disappointed” if the first lens was not ready to be marketed by 2019. He has refused to reveal the financial details of the deal.  Wearable technology is a huge growth sector with many companies developing healthcare applications. Jimenez estimated the market for wearable health devices could be worth $10-$50 billion (CHF9-13 billion) within the next decade.

Analysts told the New York Times that the pharmaceutical and health care sectors were crucial targets as people increasingly take greater control of their own medical treatment. The Wall Street Journal said experts thought the new deal made sense for both Novartis and Google, especially given Novartis’ dominant presence in the eye-care market through its Alcon unit.
According to the International Diabetes Federation, one in ten people from around the world are expected to have diabetes by 2035.

In a related development, the lens co-creator Babek Parviz, the former head of Google Glass who worked for the secretive Google X Lab, announced this week he is leaving Google for Amazon.

By Simon Bradley