Changing Our Model to Achieve Our Mission
With capital and structure in place, SightLife Surgical is built to tackle a global health challenge.
Exciting times lie ahead for those working to eliminate corneal blindness, as innovative products and services now have the potential to change many more lives. At SightLife, our mission is to serve as a global leader and partner to eliminate corneal blindness. We are working with our partners to challenge the status quo of the cornea ecosystem by driving systemic change that will enable greater innovation and access to treatments.
Worldwide, about 10 million people are corneal blind, so the demand is high and continuing to grow. In contrast, there are only approximately 150,000 donated corneas each year – leaving a tremendous shortfall for millions in need. We don’t want anyone, anywhere in the world to have to wait for a life-transforming cornea transplant or treatment. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to eliminate treatable corneal blindness by 2040. Here, we share our plans to meet this challenge.
SightLife Gears Up for Change
To work toward our goal, SightLife first looked inside our organization. What resources did we have as a non-profit? What resources could we generate to help us meet our goal? We quickly recognized that in order to succeed in eliminating corneal blindness in our lifetime, our organization needed to evolve to overcome several barriers: a fragmented eye banking industry, minimal innovation in corneal treatments, the modest size of the U.S. corneal market, and low reimbursement for surgeons and facilities.
Today, the eye banking industry is fragmented in how it delivers products and services to corneal surgeons—approximately 80 eye banks in the U.S. provide 50,000 corneas for transplantation needs domestically. Due to the small scale of each organization, no single organization has the resources to increase cornea supply, increase services to surgeons or the ability to champion the needs of the cornea ecosystem and drive systemic change.
In terms of innovation, while the cornea transplant has existed for over a century, there have been far fewer advancements in comparison to other areas of ophthalmology. The industry hasn’t had the opportunity to invest enough resources in innovative treatments for decades.
Another potential barrier is the size of the U.S. cornea transplant market. About 50,000 corneal transplants are performed each year in the U.S., and only a mere 100,000 are performed outside the U.S. The $215 million U.S. industry is simply not large enough to attract the kind of capital required to solve the global health problem of corneal blindness.
Finally, the reimbursement model for U.S. surgeons and facilities is not adequate. At ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) that perform cornea transplants, Medicare reimburses less than $1800 and the physician who performs this 45-minute procedure receives even less (typically, less than $1300). This becomes a business decision for facilities—use the operating room for a cornea transplant or schedule other procedures that take less time and provide higher reimbursements. Thus, facilities may limit the number of transplants to generate greater revenue.
SightLife is currently studying the impact of reimbursement policies and their impact on patient access to care. This is a huge undertaking and we recognized that SightLife alone did not have the resources to champion this issue. Determined to meet our goal, we needed a new approach. Thus, SightLife will invest in advocacy efforts to shift these reimbursement models.
A New Partnership Is Forged
To end corneal blindness by 2040, SightLife has formed a for-profit subsidiary, SightLife Surgical, which can generate the resources necessary to meet this enormous challenge. Through a painstaking two-year process, the SightLife board of directors enlisted legal counsel and obtained independent studies—from Ernst & Young, EyeQ Research, and the Strategic Value Group—to collaborate with us to develop a plan to help set us up for success. We needed to protect the mission and non-profit status of SightLife, while allowing investors to bring in resources that would help us accelerate our mission.
This process culminated with the board’s final approval of a $10 million investment from Flying L Partners for SightLife Surgical’s Series A round of funding. Not only is Flying L Partners giving much-needed resources, but this investment also opens the door to the firm’s team of experts in global health and ophthalmology.
As SightLife Surgical moves forward with this exceptional backing, we are basing our work on three essential commitments: medical advancement, reimbursement and policy, and global prevention and treatment.
1. Medical Advancement
SightLife Surgical will be the first organization dedicated to innovating specifically in the cornea ecosystem—bringing new products and services to ophthalmic surgeons and their patients. For example, we want to help move injectable endothelial cell therapy through the clinical research stages and, ultimately, make it available to patients. This treatment will make the availability of restoring sight to those suffering from endothelial disease much easier, as the procedure can be done in a physician’s office—an operating room is not necessary. This treatment will also revolutionize the field because it uses cultured cells instead of tissue recovered from a human donor.
Innovations such as injectable endothelial cell therapy are critical to truly eliminate corneal blindness around the world. We have to look at new ideas beyond cornea transplantation to effectively reach everyone in need.
Ultimately, we want surgeons to think of SightLife Surgical as “the cornea organization.” We are open to receiving and generating new ideas and helping those ideas become reality. Our investors, staff, and medical directors have felt frustration at a lack of progress in the cornea ecosystem, and we have a passion to help surgeons deliver better outcomes for their patients. We view this as a long-term systemic change, generating innovative solutions that can be applied globally to meet our decades-long goal.
2. Reimbursement and Policy
In the U.S., there are enough donated corneas to meet the needs of all scheduled transplant surgeries, as well as provide tissue for research and training purposes. Access to corneal tissue is not a problem. However, the current payment paradigms restrict opportunities to restore vision.
To remove barriers to cornea transplantation in the U.S., we need to repair the broken payment paradigms. Lack of adequate surgeon reimbursements for cornea transplants and challenges in receiving reimbursement often creates a financial loss that pushes facilities to limit or halt cornea transplants. As such, patients lose access to the treatment they need.
SightLife Surgical has comprehensively studied this issue and is poised to help lead efforts to change these payment paradigms. No one is better prepared to help us take on this challenge than our colleagues at Flying L Partners, who not only serve as investors, but also walk arm-in-arm with SightLife Surgical in this process. With support for surgeons and professional organizations, we will spearhead an effort to ensure that patients who need cornea transplants receive them in a timely manner.
3. Global Prevention and Treatment
As SightLife broadens its scope to address both prevention and treatment of corneal blindness throughout the world, new products, procedures, and services must be transferable to other countries, including the hardest-to-reach corners of the planet. Transferability and penetration are key considerations in evaluating any new idea.
A global perspective also brings prevention to the forefront. SightLife has always provided donor corneas for transplant. However, to eliminate corneal blindness worldwide, we need to embark on strategies that prevent needless infections and injuries. In India, for example, millions of patients are corneal blind from causes such as workplace trauma or infections, which we rarely see in the U.S. Not only can we help prevent blindness there, but we also can increase the cornea supply in India and other countries through our already-successful and growing global programs.
Together, We Will Eliminate Corneal Blindness
This is a very exciting time for those of us who have spent decades fighting treatable corneal blindness. Today, SightLife Surgical, its investors, and surgeons have the resources to achieve something many of us previously thought was impossible. Together, we have laid a foundation to work to end corneal blindness worldwide by 2040.
Introducing SightLife Surgical
As a new subsidiary of SightLife, SightLife Surgical is accelerating a shared mission: to eliminate treatable corneal blindness worldwide by 2040. SightLife Surgical is driving innovations in research, products, therapeutics, prevention, and policy to transform the corneal eco-system. Click here to learn more about SightLife Surgical and its mission.