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Spect Is Fighting Blindness With a New Portable Eye Camera and Tele-Ophthalmology Platform


Millions of people are at risk of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy, yet they lack access to specialty eye care. Spect is making this care simple, accessible, and affordable by enabling eye diagnostics at home and through primary care providers.

Today, one in three Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic. Globally, that number stands near a half billion, according to the WHO. In the best-case scenario, when a person is diagnosed with diabetes (typically type II), they’re under the care of a primary care physician. That provider will likely recommend diet, exercise, and medications to manage the disease. They’ll also tell the patient they should get their eyes checked regularly because diabetes often leads to eye damage called diabetic retinopathy, which can cause vision loss and blindness.

Diabetic retinopathy is incredibly common. At some point, nearly one out of three people with diabetes will experience it. The good news is that if it’s caught early it can be managed and vision protected.

The problem is the gap between primary care and specialty eye care. Far too few people with diabetes get the eye exams they need to protect their vision. It’s estimated that about 60% of the people who need an annual eye exam don’t get one. That’s because they have to be conducted by an eye care specialist like an ophthalmologist or optometrist, which means they’re a hassle to schedule and can be expensive. Plus, there is only about one ophthalmologist for every 17,000 Americans. The numbers are much lower elsewhere around the world.

The situation gets even more dire when you go upstream and consider how many people with diabetes don’t have a relationship with a primary care physician. These folks are disconnected from the healthcare system and often don’t even know that their eyes are in danger. Then there are the millions of people who have related diseases that lead to vision loss and blindness, who also lack access to specialty eye care. Put together, an estimated 80 million people in the US general population have vision loss due to disease.

Michael Ricci and Michael Leung, co-founders of Spect, have taken on this problem using a combination of hardware and data-driven software. They’ve designed an easy-to-use eye camera that can be deployed by healthcare staff in-clinic or at home. It’s an approach that makes eye-saving exams fast, accessible, and affordable, and it’s catching on quickly.

Origin Story
When Ankur Gupta was a child spending his summers in India, he spent time with his grandfather who was a local physician. He’d watch as his grandfather took care of a seemingly endless stream of patients from their town. Many of them came with vision loss or eye damage, but he lacked the tools for a proper eye exam, and didn’t have any eye specialists to refer them to. Necessity being the mother of invention, the doctor rigged a makeshift eye camera using a cell phone and did the best he could for his patients.

That experience stuck with Gupta, and years later, after studying engineering at Stanford, he got the opportunity to do something about it. He teamed up with fellow Stanford engineer Michael Leung and ophthalmology professor Theodore Leng and the three decided to build a better portable eye camera on top of existing iPhone technology, so that more people could get the eye care they needed. Thus, Spect was born.

The startup, still very much in stealth mode, caught the attention of Michael Ricci, a serial entrepreneur who’d worked on three digital health startups, including RecoveryOne, backed by 7wireVentures. Ricci could tell that Spect had the right foundation for a successful startup.

“In my time running healthcare startups I’ve learned as much about what doesn’t work as what does,” says Ricci. “You can’t just throw technology at healthcare. You have to understand workflow. I could see Spect had that right.”

But it wasn’t just the business opportunity that drew him in. Diabetes and vision loss hit home and offered a chance for Ricci to do some serious good in the second act of his career.

“We tend to take eyesight for granted,” says Ricci. “My mother was a borderline diabetic, and my close friend was a severe diabetic. I watched the mood swings and depression that came along with his loss of vision. I have another friend who has lost his eyesight completely due to diabetes. We’ve seen it firsthand. It’s hard not to, given the numbers.”

Ricci’s passion for saving people from blindness — and for reaching underserved populations — led him to become a Spect consultant and then CEO. Now he’s leveraging his experience to scale the business.

Under the Hood
Spect can be divided into three components: hardware, software, and data. The hardware consists of specialized optics and electronics that enable the camera on the smartphone to take retinal images. It’s portable, easy to use, and internet-connected. Spect calls it the Stethoscope for the Eye™.

At first, the Spect business model had them putting this camera in primary care offices. The idea was to have nurses and techs use it for a quick eye exam while they were gathering vitals like weight and blood pressure. That concept was working, and then COVID hit and primary care offices shut down. So Spect took their product fully remote, leveraging telemedicine to ensure it would work seamlessly for healthcare staff visiting patients in the home.

Whether in a clinic or in the home, Spect works like this. Whoever is using the camera is guided from start to finish in taking usable — called “gradable” — images. “Up, down, a little left … perfect!” These directions, sent through the device’s speakerphone, are provided in real time by a Spect-trained navigator. The images are then graded asynchronously by eye specialists (ophthalmologists and optometrists) in Spect’s telemedicine network. Spect boasts that more than 95% of the images they capture are gradable, compared with 50–60% using current cameras on the market.

The final assessment acts as a screening tool, either giving the patient a clean bill of eye health or offering the data needed to refer them to a specialist for more care.

Spect can teach a nurse or medical assistant to use the camera in about 15 minutes, and they can do the training entirely remotely. It takes about three minutes to complete a scan if you’re new and one minute if you’ve got some experience.

Spect is a prescribed service, ordered by a doctor, but it’s designed to extend the doctor’s reach. Their first large customer deployed the device using home health aids. Nurses went into the homes of people who were disconnected from the healthcare system and for whom going into the office for proper eye care was a significant hurdle. While most of the patients were above the age of 40, some of them had never had an eye exam in their life.

Why We’re Proud to Invest

When we met Ricci and the Spect team, the first thing that got our attention was the beautiful simplicity of their vision. At the end of the day, regardless of hardware or software, they’re on a mission to save the eyesight of millions of people who currently can’t access the care they need. Few things are more life-changing than saving someone from blindness. Tools like Spect have the potential to improve the health and wellbeing of millions of people around the world.

Another reason we’re bullish on Spect is that they’ve nailed down a business model that makes their device and platform incredibly accessible. Other companies have waded into the remote eye exam market, but they’ve required users to buy bulkier cameras that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more. By building their tech onto a smartphone infrastructure and using a SAAS subscription model, Spect offers the device for free and makes the per-use cost extremely low. Practically any company or clinic can get up and running with remote eye exams with almost no upfront costs.

Another aspect we love about Spect is how its ease-of-use opens up access to care for vulnerable populations. Millions of people are disconnected from traditional primary care and rely on home health aids and population health initiatives. Now, with just 15 minutes of training, community health workers of all kinds can extend the benefits of eye exams into underserved communities.

Spect is also a win for primary care doctors like Ankur Gupta’s grandfather. Not only can these physicians provide better care, but they gain a new line of revenue. Spect eye exams are recognized and coded exams that are reimbursable by insurance. By helping primary care doctors begin to offer eye exams, Spect is also helping them increase their quality rating as measured by the federal government, which in turn increases their rate of reimbursement for Medicaid and Medicare patients.

“It’s a fairly big financial benefit to them to have this arrow in their quiver,” says Ricci.

Finally, we are proud to invest in Spect because diabetic retinopathy is just the beginning. The information being captured by Spect’s eye camera opens up a whole new world of health data. This is a non-invasive, zero-radiation test that can help understand a range of health concerns, like neurological deficits, blood pressure, heart disease, cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Spect’s health moonshot vision is already making waves and has gotten the attention and support of Y Combinator, American Diabetes Association, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Medtech Innovator, and StartX. Now, we’re proud to welcome them into the StartUp Health family and support them in their next exciting chapter.

Get in touch with the Spect team via websiteemail, or LinkedIn.

Source: https://healthtransformer.co/spect-is-fighting-blindness-with-a-new-portable-eye-camera-and-tele-ophthalmology-platform-43d815c1e769