Luminopia is an early-stage startup with a mission to improve the lives of children and families through captivating, rigorously developed digital therapeutics.
Before leaving Harvard, the founding team was part of the Harvard Innovation Labs’ Venture Incubation Program for two terms. They went on to being awarded Silver at MassChallenge in 2016 and the year after were one of two winners at SXSW’s Impact Pediatric Health startup competition. Most recently, their co-founder and CEO, Dean Travers, was awarded the Thiel Fellowship.
I sat down with Travers to discuss what the company has been up to for the past couple of years since its inception.
The First Frontier
When warming up for a competitive ski race five years ago, Travers soared through the air after launching a 100-foot jump. Things only went downhill from there. When he crashed back to Earth, he suffered a concussion which damaged the vision in his right eye. A few years later, spurred on by this personal experience, Dean found himself working through the night for CS50 to develop a treatment for another neurologically-induced visual disorder, amblyopia. Two of his partners, Scott Xiao and Alex Wendland, would soon become his co-founders. Their final project would soon become Luminopia.
Amblyopia, widely known as lazy eye, is a neurological condition leading to reduced vision in one eye and affects 3–5% of children. In America alone, that statistic represents nearly 3 million children. Using your eyes is just like going to the gym — if you don’t exercise, your muscles get weaker. With amblyopia, when the weaker eye is not exercised, it does not get trained to work in the same way the stronger eye does. Currently, the treatment options available include wearing an eye patch for 2–6 hours a day, sometimes for well over a year, or administering atropine eye drops to block the stronger eye. Besides being fairly outdated, each method is widely disliked by children and their families, can be socially stigmatizing, suffers from poor compliance, and becomes ineffective beyond roughly the age of 10.
A Digital Solution
Fast forwarding to today, Luminopia’s first digital therapeutic for amblyopia is built on years of cutting-edge science, including research studies they’ve run in collaboration with their partners at the nation’s leading hospitals, such as Boston Children’s, and clinical advisors, such as Dr. Peter McDonnell, MD, director of the Wilmer Eye Institute at John’s Hopkins. “One of the biggest challenges we’ll face are along the lines of clinically validating the technology therein due to the complexity of large randomized, controlled trials,” Travers noted.
“In addition to developing a rigorous clinical backing, our goal is also to make the treatment experience captivating for children — to make it something they actually want to use as opposed to being told to use.”
Dean Travers, Co-Founder & CEO of Luminopia
As such, their neuroscience-based approach works by presenting TV and movie content differently to each eye within a kid-friendly virtual reality (VR) headset. Thanks to neural plasticity, this rebalancing approach strengthens visual processing, encourages the use of the weaker eye, and brings both eyes back to parity. Basically, children get to watch TV at home within a headset while training their lazy eye to get stronger. VR is the right solution to this problem not only because it allows for kids to engage with entertaining content, but also because the headset’s architecture separates input to each eye, making it possible to train visual acuity accordingly.
Why is Luminopia Set Up to Succeed in this Space?
You may be wondering if this treatment has been developed before. The answer is yes — two companies offering similar solutions are Amblyotech and Vivid Vision. When asked what Luminopia does differently, Travers said, “We’re creating a more engaging product experience with a more rigorous focus on clinical validation.” While specifics are still under wraps, their clinical results so far are promising, and as someone who has had my little sister try the treatment, I can attest to the fact that she could not take it off for hours and indeed even asked for one for Christmas!
It is also no secret that the founding team is fresh to the startup world. As young founders, Travers says they have a focus on surrounding themselves with as much knowledge as possible, and that this is why they are the right people for the job — “we understand that there will always be a large body of information that we don’t know we don’t know or are not expert in, especially considering the complexity of the medical space. We have a firm philosophy of building world-beating teams at a corporate and clinical advisor capacity as well as internally.”
As Luminopia moves closer to making this lazy eye treatment a reality, they’re also continually challenging themselves to creatively think about developing digital therapeutics and envisioning how the latest advancements in VR and technology can be clinically transformative.
“We like to think in terms of improving outcomes and patient experience. We’re always on the lookout for which technologies can help us do that. Currently, VR technology is evolving more quickly than even we’d imagined, and we’re exploring how to best leverage its remarkable therapeutic qualities in achieving our mission,” Travers says.
While the journey has been a long and winding one, Travers and his team cannot wait to see where the combination of healthcare emerging technologies may take them in the future. Perhaps soon, real-world use cases for VR technology will make its adoption less virtual and more of a reality.