Novartis chairman: Google smart lens is a high-risk project

Novartis Chairman Joerg Reinhardt talked down the chances of the smart contact lens project it began with Google yielding anything incredible in the next four years. Describing the program as highly risky, Reinhardt reframed a collaboration that was once seen yielding a commercial product by 2019 as a long-term long shot.

Expectations for the smart contact lens collaboration—which includes devices that autofocus and track blood glucose levels—ramped up when Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez in 2015 said a candidate would be in the clinic in 2016. That target came and went without Novartis replacing it with a new goal for the start of human testing, putting Jimenez’s ambition to have a product on the market around 2019 in jeopardy.

Reinhardt fielded questions about the state of the project from shareholders at Novartis’ annual meeting. And, despite Novartis having to drop the original target for starting testing in humans, the chairman sought to present the progress—or lack thereof—as expected, given the long-term, high-risk nature of the project.

“[It’s] a long-term project, not something where we were expecting a breakthrough in the first couple of years. We certainly haven’t seen such a breakthrough. We don’t expect anything incredible in the next three to four years, Reinhardt said.

“I personally think it’s a highly risky project. Nevertheless, it gives us at Novartis and Alcon the opportunity to work together with a technological leader like Google and to learn from that in ways that we can then apply in other areas. It’s an important pilot project,” Reinhardt said, according to a translation of the event provided by Novartis.

Reinhardt's description of the project as long term and highly risky contrasts somewhat with Jimenez’s comments to the Financial Times in 2014. Back then, Jimenez said he would be “disappointed” if the first lens wasn’t ready to be commercialized within five years.

The downgrading of expectations for the lens project is part of broader troubles at Alcon, Novartis’ eyecare division. Having spent last year trying unsuccessfully to return the unit to growth, Novartis started 2017 by initiating an assessment of whether to spin off the eyecare unit. That discussion is ongoing.

“We’ll be doing this in discussion with Alcon’s management. I think most of the associates at Alcon have welcomed that state of affairs. That doesn’t mean that we have already made a decision, though. We are evaluating a number of options. Our primary concern, of course, is to turn around Alcon’s performance and return it to profitability,” Reinhardt said.