So your bionic eye has been discontinued – now what?

bionic eyes
Image by Monic249 | Bigstockphoto

One of the hazards of being an early adopter of the latest devices and gadgets is that sometimes they don’t take off commercially and the company either folds or stops supporting said gadget, which is rendered obsolete. But what if the gadget was something really important – like, say, a bionic eye?

Yes, there is such a thing. And no, that’s not a hypothetical question.

Back in the early 2000s, a company called Second Sight Medical Products developed ‘Argus’ retinal implants that can help blind people to see with a kind of artificial vision. Over 350 blind people around the world have had these bionic eyes surgically implanted. And they worked just fine.

But by 2020, Second Sight was going bankrupt, and has abandoned the Argus product line. Here’s what that means for all of the patients who had them installed, according to IEEE Spectrum:

One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

The problem wasn’t the Argus technology itself but the cost model. The second-gen Argus II retinal implants cost $150,000 in the US, which was high for a neuromodulation device. The thing is, you don’t just install bionic eyes like a new muffler:

… implanting the Argus II was just the start of a long, tough journey for patients. Second Sight employed its own vision-rehabilitation specialists to work one-on-one with implantees, often for months or years. One Argus II patient estimated that the total cost of the device, surgery, and rehabilitation was $497,000.

Second Sight discontinued Argus in 2019, and earlier this month announced a proposed merger with an early-stage biopharmaceutical company called Nano Precision Medical (NPM). But its customers will have to live with whatever happens next.

As Spectrum points out, the Second Sight saga may not be a one-off. A rapidly growing category of medicine is neural implants, of which Elon Musk’s Neuralink is perhaps the most well-known. VCs are throwing lots of money at startups promising to treat depression and Alzheimer’s, or even make us superhumanly smart. Which sounds great and cool, but here’s the problem:

Not all these companies will succeed, and Los Angeles–based Second Sight provides a cautionary tale for bold entrepreneurs interested in brain tech. What happens when cutting-edge implants fail, or simply fade away like yesterday’s flip phones and Betamax? Even worse, what if the companies behind them go bust?

Full story here.

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