Solving the Presbyopia Problem, With Robin Sears


Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.

As president and CEO of LENTECHS, a clinical-stage ophthalmic device company on the verge of commercializing a new contact lens, Robin Sears applies the core competencies he learned while moving through the ranks at Johnson & Johnson and Allergan.

As told to OIS Podcast host Paul Karpecki, OD, when Robin heard about the presbyopia lens developed by Melissa Bailey, OD, PhD, and Joe Barr, OD, MS—VP of R&D and CMO, respectively, at LENSTECH—he saw a tremendous opportunity to reshape the market. He started fundraising and turned a novel invention into a business.

Because of the demand for a presbyopia contact lens, that business may soon take off. LENTECHS research showed 74% of presbyopes who wear glasses want a contact lens option.

The LENTECHS contact lens, called APIOC, is based on a new type of contact lens–wearing experience. The lens is suspended behind the upper eyelid, allowing the eye to move freely behind the stable contact lens. The idea is to have contact lens that’s like wearing a progressive lens—the so-called no-line bifocals—but without the frames. After successful clinical trials, the company is currently staging for commercial launch in late 2022.

Listen to this podcast to discover:
• The LENTECHS MOA: How APIOC works with the eye’s anatomy rather than on the eye’s anatomy.
• How Robin helped build Allergan’s then-new dry eye product, Restasis, into a billion-dollar drop. While there, he also led multiple teams to achieve billions in sales.
• The common traits needed to lead a startup, continuing success, and turnaround opportunities.
• The full story on LENTECHS’ rise from concept to company.
• What Robin learned from his earliest mentors: his father, a dairy farmer; and an MBA professor who literally wrote the book on taking biotechnology research from the bench to industry.

Click “play” to listen.




Paul Karpecki: Thank you and welcome to the OIS Podcast. Today I’m honored to have a great guest with us, Robin Sears. And the reason I say great guests is because Robin has a wonderful eye care background that includes working with large companies now CEO of a startup company, he’s worked in spaces from dry eye, glaucoma, devices over towards now a device and the eye care field as probably as a contact lens would be primarily optometric, but all across the board. And so it’s just so wonderful when you have that kind of diversity to be able to share insights because there are a lot of people who throughout their path and listeners who have been with big companies that dream of the startup world, some might not some will, there will be others who are kind of the other direction, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to go through this. So welcome, Robin, glad to have you on the podcast.

Robin Sears: A pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me today. And very excited to be with you and all of your listeners.

Paul Karpecki: We’re excited to have you hey, why don’t we go right to the kind of the beginning, just as you know, the listeners are getting to know you walk us through a little bit of your personal background like where did you grow up? Robin? Are there any early entrepreneurial influences that kind of legend to, because you’ve always been entrepreneurial, even in big companies? And that mindset has always been yours. And now of course in startup companies? How did that develop? But let’s start with your background and growing up.

Robin Sears: Yeah, so I grew up in England, Ireland, and Canada, I spent seven years very early on in Ireland, my dad ran big dairy companies and production facilities for dairy for butter and cheese. So we ended up moving all over the world, in the Western Hemisphere anyway, growing up, and we ended up coming to the United States in 1976 and stayed on the East Coast. And I grew up in upstate New York on a dairy farm while my dad was running the dairy processing facility in upstate New York. So my dad all the time, even while we’re growing up always had some businesses on the side that he was interested in. And being on a dairy farm that in and of itself is a business and you get to learn the business from the ground up and literally from the ground up and figure out ways for a dairy business like that in agriculture to survive. So very early on, I learned what it meant to make money and to manage expenses and to try and create value through what I was doing on a daily basis working on a farm. So I took that with me for the rest of my life, I guess also taught me that I didn’t want to do dairy farming for the rest of my life, or work in that milk factory. Both of those things were out.

Paul Karpecki: That’s awesome. Where do you go to school? Because at this point were in US or in Canada, where it was, they were it was grueling and what did you study? Was it business at the beginning or obviously wasn’t anything in the dairy world?

Robin Sears: Yeah. So I went to school here in Ohio, actually based companies based here in Columbus, Ohio. But I went to school at a small liberal arts school called Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, played football there, and studied business and biology. I originally started out as pre-med. So that’s where my biology minor came from. I went to Duke for a little while during undergrad to finish off my biology minor. I spent nearly nine months at the Marine Lab down on the coast. So my biology minor is mainly in marine biology of all things. So but business was my main area of focus in marketing and finance. And then I went to graduate school soon after finishing my undergraduate and got an MBA in finance and marketing and took a lot of courses on entrepreneurship and spent some really important and I think the formative time was one of the professors who specialized in taking biotechnology research from the bench to industry that was actually the title of his book. And that stuck with me for a very long time. And, in fact, I reference a lot of those learnings and a lot of that mentorship I got from that professor in graduate school as I think through how to put plans in place for what we’re doing with the startup companies and Windex being included.

Paul Karpecki: Wow, is that book currently available, Robin? you can is it

Robin Sears: Actually still in print? I can look that up. And I’ll come back to you with that ball. Great question.

Paul Karpecki: He put that in the show notes that some readers may want to pick that up because obviously you’ve made some wise decisions and including not going the med route go in the business or out obviously with all you’ve been able to kind of achieve and get to where you are. So I remember the first time I met you, you were working at Allergan. And of course, you let a lot of you know pretty high up a level in terms of what you were leaving at that time was what was the path to Allergan or was that where you came out of graduate school and join that company, or do you have a little segue beforehand?

Robin Sears: So out of graduate school I joined Johnson & Johnson, I was with Johnson & Johnson for 13 years I started as a representative in North Carolina, actually in dermatology of all specialties, and spent some time in North Carolina then South Carolina. So I worked my way up through the sales ranks and fairly good at selling products to physicians, and then ended up in management on the sales side. After about four and a half years doing that, I moved into product management and eventually worked my way up in product management. So I was running the Women’s Health Care franchise for Ortho Mc-Neil Pharmaceutical at the time, and about a billion dollars franchise in women’s health care products in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. My one of my mentors, Joe Schultz left Johnson and Johnson and went over to Allergan, and they had a product that we had just launched a year earlier but was struggling a little bit a little tiny product for a niche and dry eye called Restasis. So Joe called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in coming to help turn that product around. And that’s when I joined Allergan. So I was 13 years with Johnson & Johnson had amazing management development program there, Johnson & Johnson really helped me with my leadership skills, but also the competencies that were necessary to run large businesses, and then was recruited to come and join Allergan and had a great opportunity to lead Restasis in the dry eye franchise for Allergan when I first arrived there, which was a very exciting time.

Paul Karpecki: Yeah, that was an amazing thought people don’t realize those first few years were struggling years, the product was kind of a little niche and severe forms. It wasn’t a knowledge of where to fit it in and how it did. And it really took someone with great business skills to recognize it to meet with a lot of key people to get out there and understand it, I remember you doing that extensively. I was kind of one of the lucky ones too to get to put in my input those first few years and you took all of that and created really an amazing change. And, you know, I don’t know where that we’d have that multi-billion dollar drop available, had it not been for that timeframe. And it says a lot and is great, you’re able to take those skills from each of the places along the way and then apply it and is it fair to say that, you know, so many business skills can be applied, whether it’s a turnaround and a startup? Or is it really different and you just have to adapt the skills?

Robin Sears: Yeah, I think if you think through what people are faced with his business challenges, all of them are opportunities that are balanced with the challenge. As I was going through my formative years at J&J, and Allergan, when I started talking to my mentors about development, they always talked about the three different business opportunities. So you have startups, continuing success, and then obviously turnaround situations and each one of them challenges your leadership and your core competencies in different ways. But I’d say that the constant that’s applicable across all of those different types of business challenges and opportunities is making sure that you surround yourself with the right people, and that you build trust and respect with your team and that you surround that team with experts and people who can help shape your thinking in the strategy and your execution around what you’re trying to get accomplished. I think you referenced that for Restasis. You know, that was a turnaround situation. And the only way that we were successful was we assembled a great team of people around the product and then had the wherewithal and the understanding to go and surround that with the right experts out there in the medical community to give us the right advice to help us shape the path for that turnaround. I think that’s the same across all three of those business opportunities is whether you’re starting up a new entity, continuing that success of going enterprise or turning around something that’s really struggling. It really fundamentally starts with the people that you surround those opportunities with, making sure you have a good cohesive team with great trust and respect and a common vision of where you’re going. If you can do that, then you’re going to set yourself up for success.

Paul Karpecki: That’s great insights, Robin, I’m anxious to get to the, well steam from contact lens spectrum is the product of the year but take me right before we get into that a little bit from your place in Allergan the turnaround story pretty remarkable story in of itself. We could spend a ton of time on that, but I want to get to what you’re doing today. And did and from there did go to LenTechs was there was a little time in between it probably you’ve had to do some searching to find this technology they came to you, tell me a little bit about that path before we get into the company and the products itself.

Robin Sears: Yeah, so I was with Allegan for 10 years and left the eyecare business and went over and ran the Botox Aesthetic business for Europe, Africa in the Middle East, had a great experience there and came back and ran Botox Therapeutic and left Allergan after 10 years actually came here to Columbus, Ohio to run the adult and therapeutic nutrition business for Abbott. So as with them, they have bet a billion-and-a-half-dollar franchise and nutrition products, including Ensure and Glucerna, but also the hospital products. So I did that for a few years here in Columbus, Ohio, and left them after a couple of years and started doing some consulting with startups in the biotechnology space here in central Ohio, a little-known hub of Life Sciences technology, and was helping the Ohio State University to try and get more products licensed out to entrepreneurs who want to start-up businesses. I was doing that for a little while and then happened to be at a showcase event where people were presenting their new technologies. And Dr. Bailey, who’s one of the inventors on the contact lens for LenTechs was presenting it was sort of an entrepreneurial speed dating thing where the inventors of the technology got up and had five minutes and five slides to present to a whole crowd of entrepreneurs. I saw the first slide and I was sitting next to somebody who’s a really good friend of mine. And I turned to her, and I said, Wow, this is an amazing technology, and they’re doing something that nobody else is doing in the contact lens space, this is a really important opportunity to do something different, especially because in the presbyopia market, very few people are really wearing contact lenses. They’re using glasses as the primary means of correction. So you know, when you think about 93% of presbyopes are using glasses as their primary means of correction. Yet younger patients 25% of that population is using contact lenses for their correction. So there’s a huge gap between people’s desire to use contact lenses as their primary means of correction for presbyopia, and what the technology the multi-focal simultaneous vision contact lenses were delivering for them. So it was an aha moment was literally, me turning to this person as a good friend of mine and saying, Wow, this is a huge opportunity to reshape the contact lens market. So it’s been an exciting ride since then, that was the spring of 2017. So we’ve been at this for a little while now.

Paul Karpecki: That’s really fascinating. And I have to agree when I heard about the technology as well, you know, just the how it’s held in place that as a real big issue is because with, you know, we’re trying to simulate, you know what we can get with spectacles, but we’re not, we don’t have anything that could keep the contact lens in place up till now to allow for that. So you had to kind of look at, you know, multivocality and ways of trying to look at different images, and it takes some adaptation in that patient population. I think that’s why we’re seeing about 7% because the technologies continue to advance and yet, there’s nothing that different like we’re talking about here today. So you got together with Dr. Bailey and the team and said, Dr. Barr, obviously Joe Barr as well, you know, two key people, great mentors to many people and brilliant individuals. And then and you said, Hey, let’s work together to take this to market. And obviously, it’s there’s a little bit of path there too, I’d love to hear about how easy is it to get a product that’s, you know, at an entrepreneurial fair from a concept idea to a true company, you know, that’s funded and able to get through research and through the process. And then, you know, let’s, let’s talk a little bit about the technology, what it does, how it is different, how it can affect the market, and then where we’re at. So let’s take the step of what goes on when you take a great concept, but then you got to make a company out of it, Robin?

Robin Sears: Well, I think the key thing is to fall back on your experience. And you know, because I’d been part of such, you know, very successful large multinationals, I’d had a good understanding of the framework for success for how to build a good business. Obviously, you have to translate that to a startup. It isn’t the same way you have a team of when you get my team at Abbott for example, when I got everybody in a room all my direct reports and their direct reports. It’s close to 100 people. So there was a huge group of people who had functional expertise in all the areas that you need to have to be able to successfully bring products to market. When you’re in a startup, you have to rely on all of that past experience. But now it’s just you and a very small team of people. So you have to pick and choose how to go about. spending your time, time is your most precious resource when you’re in a startup, how you go about allocating that time to the important things that need to get accomplished and ordering those things so that you take advantage of the biggest opportunities first. So for us, it was really about getting to proof of concept very early. So how do we get to proof of concept to prototype having a contact lens on eye that works by completely different mechanism of action and the current multi-focal simultaneous vision lenses, that was our first priority. So in our early days, it was literally me and Dr. Barr and Dr. Bailey in a lab with a partner manufacturer who was very adept at helping us to tweak the design, and us getting a new design every three to five days and trialing that and making adjustments. And that was the early part of our design. And our proof of concept that once we got to a lens that was stable on the eye rotationally stable and allowed for the eye to move behind the contact lens, like a pair of glasses. That’s when we knew we were out of the woods, if you will. And we had gotten to proof of concept that allowed us to do the next most important thing, which was to go out and raise money and resource the company so that we could bring on the necessary people to advance the technology, both from a manufacturing point of view, but also from a clinical and r&d point of view. So really became a stepwise approach and prioritization and time management and resource allocation. So that we were able to make the most important things happen strategically and to do them in the right order. Whereas with a big company, you can do everything at once, you know, so you’ve got the marketing team working, the r&d team working, the manufacturing team working, all of them simultaneously driving towards the goal of bringing things to market, when you’re in a startup, you really have to prioritize and put things in the right order. So once we got to a good proof of concept, we were able to go out and raise the money that was necessary to do all the clinical and r&d work to put the lens on eyes. And we’ve had the lens on over 250 people in our clinical development program and made a lot of advancement in the technology and a lot of refinement. One of the things we promised to our medical advisory board and our key opinion leaders very early on, was that we’re going to do everything we can to find all the good and the bad in our technology and to make sure that we develop the technology so that when it comes to market, they’re not trying to figure out as clinicians with their patients how the technology works. We’re going to do that in advance during our clinical and r&d program. So we’ve worked very diligently on that.

Paul Karpecki: It’s great insight seems so subtle, but it’s critical. And you’re absolutely right that in otherwise, the impression may not be as good as it could be and doesn’t get to launch it does better to figure that all out clinically ahead of time. So tell us what makes this technology so unique and why it’s well positioned for tackling that presbyopia market that nothing to date is I mean, we’ve had advances and we have great technologies, but nothing has gotten to the level based on the numbers you shared that it could.

Robin Sears: Yeah. So I think the biggest “aha” for us was when we started doing some of our marketing research and doing some research into the published literature on presbyopes, and how they like to use products. In fact, Dr. Bailey did some work where she and a research partner found that 74% of presbyopes want to have a contact lens solution, something that works for them. Our marketing research bore out that 70% of consumers who have presbyopia want to have a contact lens option. So that was really insightful for us. So you know, and the core concept behind why consumers have that much desire for contact lens but still aren’t using a contact lens really comes down to the visual compromise that they have to put up with. So that really comes from the mechanism of action and the visual optics of the current contact lenses. So with a multifocal contact lens, you have rings of different powers. All of that visual signal is going to the back of the retina at the same time. So that’s simultaneous vision of all that vision distance intermediate near all coming to the back of the eye at the same time degrades the vision a little bit. And there’s some trade-off that needs to be made in the optics on those contact lenses that have been historically in the market. And most of the time, people have to either have exceptional near vision and average distance vision, or vice versa with these multifocal contact lenses. So our design idea was to, instead of having a contact lens that’s basically on the ocular surface, with the optics at all bring all that distance intermediate and near vision to the back of the eye at the same time, our idea that Dr. Bailey invented with Dr. Barr was to have a rigid polymer across the top of the contact lens and to suspend that lens from the inside of the upper eyelid. And then for the eye to move behind the contact lens, like a pair of progressive addition glasses, and have discrete vision correction distance, intermediate and near without that compromise. So a very unique way of going about doing a contact lens, our lens works with the eyes anatomy rather than is on the eye’s anatomy, like the traditional contact lens. So a very different approach. So the mechanism of action is really what makes the difference with this contact lens, and why we’re getting such good results in our clinical work.

Paul Karpecki: It’s absolutely brilliant in its design because you hear it and you think about, you know, having a lens that is stabilized by the natural berlet and there’s a nice place there for it to be comfortable. And then rather than, you know, using all these images coming in at once your eye works like what spectacles as you look down, you look through the different intermediate near far. And that’s what you’re doing here. Because it stabilizes your eye allows it you know, when you hear ideas that or like, wow, that makes all the sense worldwide. And I think that, you know, you get something incredibly brilliant, that’s going to go far. And this certainly sounds like that it makes all the sense in the world. So what stage in LenTechs technology are we at now, are we, we’re obviously in the FDA, you’re also going through and ensuring that every subtle little difference in how the fitting is best done and any anticipating anything possible and correcting it. But where are we along the lines of when we might see this lens in the hands of eye care practitioners?

Robin Sears: So we’ve just finished our clinical work, we’re very excited about our clinical work, we put out a press release in the late fall, early winter on our clinical results where we showed statistically significant and clinically meaningful difference in low and high contrast distance vision compared to current multifocals. We also showed that our vision was comparable to patients’ glasses. So our clinical results were fantastic. And we’re really proud to announce that we had finished our clinical program. So that was our biggest milestone in terms of getting ready to stage the company for commercial launch. So we’re in the process of doing that staging for commercial launch at the moment, we’re about to embark on another series of fundraising, to enable that, with the hope that we have the product ready and have enough manufacturing capacity to satisfy the demand that we anticipate sometime in the latter part of this year. 3rd quarter to early fourth quarters.

Paul Karpecki: Congratulations. That’s very exciting. I think fundraising at this stage should go extremely well, especially given that technology and just the fact that you know, I’m always amazed by you take these large companies, you mentioned Johnson & Johnson and you know, they’re in all areas from cardiology to oncology to obviously infectious disease, we’ve seen COVID and whatever. And if you look at the single most profitable product they have, it goes back to contact lens, you know, so it always amazes me how it’s just enormous the market potential is in this field when you started thinking about the just the reboot the fact that you dispose at some point of the lens and then repurchase the new technologies that presbyopia is the premium area. So extremely exciting, Robin glad to hear it’s that close to us potentially having access to it. And I wish you well in this ninth inning as you get to that stage and of course, can’t really say ninth inning, then you’ve got the launch and the success, the excitement of that but even getting to that level of approval product is a great achievement.

Robin Sears: Well, thank you very much. And we appreciate all the advice counsel you and your peers have given us we couldn’t have gotten to this part point without that. Very excited for the next chapter. You know, it’s like chapters of the book, we had the introduction, then we’ve gotten the early chapter taken care of which was the development of the actual technology and then really, Chapter Three was getting to our clinical results and now we’re in the place where we need to write the chapter for commercialization and get prepared to help support this product in the market. and get as many patients to have a great experience as we possibly can. And to have as many clinicians thinking to themselves, wow, I’ve got a new tool in my armamentarium, I get something that can really make a difference in my patients’ lives. I’m very excited about that. So that’s our mindset as a company right now, and we’re very excited about this next chapter. So thanks for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Paul Karpecki: Oh, it’s an honor to have you, you’ve been a terrific guest. Thanks for sharing such great insights, everything from you know, your pathway working in different roles from turnarounds to startups, some of the key attributes you need to succeed in any one of these. And also the, you know, wishing you continued success. I think this will be an amazingly successful technology that’ll benefit millions of patients. And finally, something new that can target that enormous presbyopic group that is looking for other solutions. And this of course, in the contact lens area is significant, especially when you can see data coming out that’s equivalent to wearing spectacles. That’s a standout statement. Thanks for your time, Robin. Appreciate all the insights and very well done on the interview as always.

Robin Sears: Great. Thanks. Great to see you.