Millions to research after first win for Sweden

Shortly before the new year began the news hit – a research team partly at LiU was awarded 1st prize in the EIT Health Wildcard competition. It is the first time that the competition is won by a team based in Sweden.

Close up of a woman inserting a contact lens in her eye. The new natural contact lens will be made out of the same material as human cornea.

– It is rewarding when you see that your research is recognized at an European level, says Mehrdad Rafat, adjunct senior lecturer at Linköping University and leader of the research team behind the win.

The team’s research focus on developing natural contact lenses made from the same material as the human cornea. The team will initially target myopia, poor distance vision, in dry eye patients and then expand the solution to other conditions of the eye such as poor near vision and therapeutic applications such as slow drug delivery to the eye. Their work has been ongoing for the last few years and the team decided to participate in the competition a year ago. Mehrdad Rafat says that they weren’t expecting to win due to a fierce competition but he is happy that their hard work developed into a win.

– You may work hard in your laboratory, for many years and obtain excellent results but if you cannot transform them into knowledge, a product or services to make a positive impact on people’s lives, they will be of no use. Having said that, in order to make such transformation, you need funding and a strong network. We are happy to see that decision makers at EU level have recognized the importance of vision care and the need for new innovative treatment options for various eye conditions.

There are more than 2.6 billion people globally suffering from myopia and 1.1 billion suffer from dry eye according to WHO. Both diseases are increasing. We spend a lot more time indoors and in front of screens, something that can cause both eye disorders and explain the rising numbers. The contact lens that the research group is developing is designed to work for anyone and to help with both conditions.

– Our lens will work as a source for hydration and preventing excessive evaporation of tear film. It is designed to help patients see and at the same time make them feel comfortable.

By winning the research group gets two years of mentoring and coaching, and up to 1.5 million euros in funding. The money will go into developing prototypes, pre-clinical and pilot clinical tests and recruiting more employees.

– More important than money are the people whom I work with and the network that we are part of now. EIT is putting us in contact with innovation companies as well as investors, people with business minds, that is something every company needs to reach their goal. With this mentorship I think we will get there faster.

Photo of the three researchers who work with developing the new contact lens."I would also like to acknowledge my team members, Shideh Tabe, and Raha Omrani, without whom this achievement was impossible", says Mehrdad Rafat. From left to right: Raha Omrani, Mehrdad Rafat and Shideh Tabe.

This was the fourth year of the competition and the first time that a team from Sweden won. Mehrdad Rafat think that it is important that Sweden is represented in all aspects of European innovation.

– We are proud of our innovation here, but we should go beyond the borders of Sweden.

Mehrdad Rafat highlights the importance of research and science becoming something that everyone can use.

– That is important to any country or nation. It should be a source of pride, and we need the local support to make something great happen.

Since the competition the research group has started a new company that will push the project forward.

– This product is unique since there are no other like it, not any that is truly natural. The goal is to get it regulated and approved in the next two to three years.

What would you like to say to researchers that are thinking about participating in the competition?

– It is a great opportunity. If you think that your research has potential, go for it. It is different from other type of fundings since it is more like a competition, at the same time you get to learn a lot. I would definitely recommend it.

Facts

  • The team that competed consists of researchers from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, IMT, and the startup companies NaturaLens AB and LinkoCare AB
  • The team has started a new company to move the project forward; NaturaLens AB
  • EIT Helath is a network focused on health and care

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