Semi-retired Alumnus Turns PolyU Research into Hit Merchandise that Slows Myopia Progression
半退休理大舊生創業 科研變產品 助學童減慢近視加深
We are not starting a business to make money. We earnestly wish to promote research findings of PolyU and benefit more people.
Jackson LEUNG 梁子文
Co-founder, Vision Science and Technology Company Limited 共同創辦人
The interview with Jackson Leung Tze-man took place at PolyU Optometry Clinic, to which he is no stranger. ‘I was from the first class of graduates of PolyU’s School of Optometry in 1987.’ That was the first thing he uttered in our stroll along the iconic brick-red walls.
The alumnus in Optometry has spent years working in the optical industry after leaving his alma mater. But as retirement edges closer, he had the opportunity to open a start-up with his former classmate Professor To Chi-ho, Chair Professor of Experimental Optometry at the School of Optometry, to market the Defocus Incorporated Soft Contact (DISC) lens that helps to slow myopia (short-sightedness) progression in children aged 6 to 18 by 60%. ‘We are not starting a business to make money. We earnestly wish to promote research findings of PolyU and benefit more people’, says Jackson.
Jackson, in his 50s and semi-retired, used to serve a number of sizeable optical companies as a training and technical consultant. In 2014, Professor To, Jackson’s friend of so many years, suggested that he started a business and introduced the DISC lens developed by PolyU into the market. ‘Professor To has been dedicated to his research for more than 20 years, while my Master thesis in 1997 was also a myopia study. So we share the fascination with this subject.’
DISC lens is a bifocal soft contact lens of concentric rings design, and comprises a series of alternating ‘correction zones’ (normal degrees) and the ‘defocusing zones’ (lower degrees) extending towards the periphery. Light going through the correction zones is focused on the retina to give the wearer a clear image, while light passing through the defocusing zones is projected in front of the retina. The out-of-focus image produces signals that would retard axial elongation of the eyeball, thereby slowing the progression of myopia.
Big Companies Not Interested: ‘Better to Do it Yourself’
In 1998, Professor To led a team and initiated the research on myopia, beginning to trial ‘optical defocus’ in animal experiments for the control of myopia progression. ‘With encouraging results, we proceeded with clinical experiments on human.’ Solid academic research did not guarantee a success, however, as Professor To’s negotiations with several manufacturers for a partnership have failed one after the other. ‘At the time the market was not convinced that myopia can be controlled and they did not think such control was important, thus their lack of interest in commercialising the research.’
The frustration grew further when a four-year negotiation with a major corporate turned out fruitless. ‘Why don’t I do it myself? I raised my idea to Jackson.’ But Jackson noted turning a science research into a marketable product for the mass would bring on an array of practical and operational challenges. He took out a green box from his briefcase and said, ‘this is our first-generation product. You can’t disregard it if you want to know the whole story.’
(left) Professor To Chi-ho, Chair Professor of Experimental Optometry at the School of Optometry, led the research team of DISC lenses.「光學離焦」軟性隱形眼鏡由眼科視光學學院講座教授杜嗣河教授（圖左）率領的團隊研發。
From A Theory to Merchandise
The little box contains only one pair of the first-generation contact lenses, which are customised according to a child's eyeballs. Its launch had been met with huge popularity, but Jackson remarked that children would easily damage the contact lenses and the three-week lead time for customisation was also less than ideal for myopia control. ‘We wished to make disposable lenses, but the manufacturing cost was too high and we first settled with a customised version.’
Jackson added that save for cost control, they also had to look for a standardised production plant, verify its production inspection systems and certification systems, and ascertain that the products will pass the PolyU testing. The long list of requirements inevitably increased the time and difficulty of production. ‘We had to start from scratch for our production, certification and equipment systems, therefore it took us about two to three years to develop the first generation, while the second generation rolled out in just another year.’
Entrepreneurship Promotes PolyU’s Research Result
Unlike other start-up founders, Jackson appeared at ease in sharing the challenges of the early stage. Repeatedly he made it very clear that as a man heading for retirement, the significance of his business is more about popularising his alma mater’s scientific research achievement than seeking profit. ‘As an optometry graduate, without a doubt I have to bring such an outstanding invention of my department to the market.’ Jackson recalled that after launching the first generation of products, they reached out to local optometrists and had them give recommendations to consumers. ‘Network is also key, given that these optometrists are our seniors and juniors at PolyU.’
People networking is crucial in the journey of entrepreneurship. Jackson recognised that the connections have also made the second generation possible. ‘It was a coincidence that we came to know a Taiwan producer that already owns moulds, equipment, etc., saving us a lot of expenses,’ explained Jackson. While the first-generation lenses were mainly sold in Hong Kong, their company has been certified to market the second-generation lenses in Mainland China to tap the much bigger market. ‘With a huge market, products of better quality and a favourable Chinese government policy on myopia control, sales of the second generation is looking great.’ As in September 2019, the start-up has already sold 50,000 boxes of the second-generation lenses in Mainland China, and the tally is expected to reach about 100,000 boxes by year end. ‘Our goal is to sell 1 to 2 million boxes, hopefully every child with myopia can wear our lenses.’ Leveraging their extensive people network, the company has secured financing close to HK$2 million in just three years in addition to the HK$1.1million funding support from PolyU, underscoring the investors' confidence in the prospect of the business.