Google partners with Swiss biomedical giant on smart contact lens

Google’s X division has taken a big step forward in making its “smart contact lens” technology available for the consumer market, by announcing a licensing agreement with the biotech giant Novartis.

The Swiss company said it plans to work with Google to develop and commercialize the smart lens, aiming first to use it as a device that helps diabetics monitor the glucose level in their tears – and possibly as an implantable optical device to help wearers with difficulty focusing on objects up close.

Prototypes of a wearable contact lens that contains miniaturized transistors and a hair-thin radio antenna were unveiled earlier this year by researchers at Google X. That’s the company’s so-called “moonshot” division that is also the home of projects like the self-driving car, the wearable computer known as Glass and Internet-transmitting balloons.

Google’s smart lens is just one of many new efforts by tech companies seeking to apply the latest computer hardware and software innovations to medical technology. It was developed by a team led by two scientists from the University of Washington who joined Google X in recent years: Brian Otis and Babak Parviz.

Parviz also helped oversee development of Google’s Glass, although he recently handed over that project to a new boss, Ivy Ross, who was recruited by Google from the retail marketing and design sector. That move appeared to be part of Google’s effort to transition Glass from an experimental prototype to a mainstream consumer product.

Meanwhile, Parviz announced this week that he’s left Google to work for Amazon. He hasn’t said what he’ll be doing there, although it’s been speculated that he’ll work on optical technology projects.

Google had previously said it was open to partnering with biomedical companies that would have the expertise to bring its smart lens to market. In contrast, Google has been working to market Glass by itself. Earlier this year, X boss Astro Teller told me that he’s open to either approach for X projects, depending on which seems most suitable for a particular technology.

(Photo of smart lens prototype courtesy of Google)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (326 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.