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Disrupting eye care: Start-up accelerators are going through an evolution, generally becoming more focused on verticals, such as digital health or fintech. I have taken this one step further, establishing an accelerator focused on eye care

I am testing the idea that a very focused accelerator can offer better support for the start-ups, but also that it can act as a catalyst to build out an ecosystem. In this instance we are building the eye-care innovation ecosystem.

The accelerator is a 12 week program, and therefore a short, focused period of activity around which to cluster people. It is not labour intensive for partners and mentors, yet due to its intensity is very content rich and has high returns for those involved.

The returns are more than just supporting the start-ups. Mentoring is a great way to learn about new innovations, to challenge your own ideas, and to meet other mentors. Equally, our partners and sponsors are getting involved in a very focused networking opportunity. We hope to create value for the whole ecosystem, whilst at the same time offering intense support for our start-ups.

We are sponsored by Bayer Health Care, Zeiss, Bosch, and Peppermint Venture Partners, meaning we have access to a lot of expertise in ophthalmology, optics, eye-care innovation, and investors actively investing in this space.

And why eye-care? This was to some extent a commercial decision, mixed with some serendipity, as is the way with innovation. We were already working with an eye-care start-up, Optretina. I was struck by the impact they had, combined with the commercial success. As well as setting up a profitable business, they had already saved someone’s life by the time they finished their first accelerator program. I like that mix of sustainable commercial business and social outcomes.

As well as identifying various eye-diseases with their system, Optretina can spot high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions. With one patient they spotted she had dangerously high blood pressure and when she was referred to casualty she was told she narrowly missed having a heart attack – good going for a start-up.

According to the World Health Organisation, over 280m people are visually impaired. Of these, 39m are totally blind, with the number expected to grow by 1-2m per year. This is 0.7% of the population globally. 90% of the world's visually impaired live in low-income settings. 80% of all visual impairment can be prevented or cured.

This is a compelling market opportunity, and the existing state of the sector is ripe for disruption. The way start-ups solve problems, being agile and disruptive, is perfect for a space that has been dominated by legacy-heavy structures like hospitals and aid organisations.

This sort of disruption can be seen in the widely publicised Peek Vision who created a 3D printed device that can clip onto a smart phone to make retinal examinations. This provides a portable solution that costs dollars, compared to the existing medical devices that are large, heavy, and cost thousands of dollars.

EyeFocus Accelerator will run from February to May 2015 at Rainmaking Loft in Berlin, with parallel activities in London. We are accepting start-ups now, and are also very open to anyone wanting to mentor, partner, or in any way get involved. We have up to 20,000 Euros to invest in start-ups, as well as a unique set of mentors, partners, and sponsors.

With EyeFocus, I have challenged some of the ideas around accelerators, and the main innovations on this model are:

  • It is very focused. This should offer more value to the start-ups.

  • Due to the network we have built around EyeFocus, the accelerator should help companies move through networks faster. In that respect we are more focused on customer development, accelerating the networking necessary both to refine and finish a product, and get it to market.

  • We are fully independent, without other investors or sources of money that define what we do. Consequently we can be very flexible. We are a business, but with a strong social aspect, which I think is inevitable if you work in health innovation. We are therefore able to accept start-ups, and also university spin-outs and social enterprises. For each we can work out a package that suits them, both in terms of what we offer them, and what we ask for in return.

  • We want our earlier stage start-ups to attend the program, as there is great benefit in being in a thriving start-up environment like Rainmaking Loft. However, we are also able to accept those that cannot attend, and will do a lot of online mentoring.

I am keen to hear from RSA Fellows who may know of people innovating in eye care who might apply to our program. Anyone interested in both the eye-care aspect, and the way we are evolving the accelerator model should get in touch.


Tobias Stone is co-founder of EyeFocus Accelerator, and a very active mentor in the European start-up scene. He is also researching accelerators at Huddersfield University.eyefocus accelerator logo

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