1. CIE
  2.  » 
  3. Newsroom
  4.  » Eyes wide open – the journey from academic to entrepreneur

NEWSROOM

Eyes wide open – the journey from academic to entrepreneur

28 June 2022

Toku Eyes AI technology scans eyes to predict the likelihood of blindness, stroke or heart disease. What sounds like science fiction is now science fact, currently operating in over 70 clinics worldwide. Having recently completed a $3.6 million investment round, the venture is now looking to expand operations from New Zealand, Australia and India into the United States.

Toku Eyes was founded by University of Auckland scientist and lecturer Ehsan Vaghefi whose entire professional career has been informed by the needless suffering that his father experienced. His father lost his vision to congenital glaucoma when Vaghefi was four years old. Had it been diagnosed early, he could have kept his eyesight. It is thought that 90% of cases of blindness today is due to undiagnosed disease and is preventable. Following 15 years as a research scientist and academic, Vaghefi has become an entrepreneur to ensure that the solutions he develops can reach as many people as possible. 

Professor John Marshall, the inventor of laser eye surgery, says “Using the eye as a diagnostic device for conditions outside the eye makes it so now opthamologists can begin to talk to the cardiovascular surgeon. This has huge potential that will ramify throughout medicine.”

Vaghefi says “I’ve published 45 scientific peer reviewed papers, twice as many conference papers, and three patents. Through research I’ve probably helped hundreds of scientists whereas in the past three years, I have helped hundreds of thousands of people. Without going through this pain of becoming an entrepreneur (and it is a painful process), people outside of academia won’t have had the opportunity to benefit from that research.”

Early beginnings with entrepreneurship 
Vaghefi first developed his interest and knowledge of entrepreneurship through participating in programmes such as the free Velocity entrepreneurship development programme offered by the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), and through support from the University’s commercialisation company UniServices. Vaghefi credits opportunities such as the Velocity $100k Challenge with being valuable in instilling new knowledge and skills. “If you win, great, you have cash to experiment and put towards your minimum viable product. But the real value is in the experience of pitching in front of other entrepreneurs, and defending your idea. Scientists, myself included, look at all the good things about our idea, but lack the perspective of a commercial enterprise. And 99% of the time, good ideas don’t work because they are poorly executed. Challenges like this help you encounter difficult questions that you’ve never faced before. For example, one of the questions I was asked was, what is the revenue model? I had to google revenue model. Or, what is your regulatory strategy? I had no idea what a regulatory strategy was. But then that strategy defines everything about your invention. So programmes like Velocity are a bootcamp, forcing you to use those sorts of brain muscles that you’ve never used before.” 

Advice on earning the means to make an impact
Vaghefi is pragmatic about the mental toughness and humility needed to access the means to bring ideas to life. He says “In the early stages, when the company doesn’t have revenue, you’re asking people to invest in your idea, and in your capability to execute it, without a track record. Going through pre-seed funding rounds is really tough as you have to convince people that are not necessarily experts in your sort of field that this is a good idea. It will ultimately lead to improvement and innovation as you’ll be asked questions that you haven’t thought of. But it takes a lot of mental toughness to be able to deal with that and you have to be okay with criticism and hearing a lot of ‘no’.”

Toku Eyes AI platforms ORAiCLE™ & THEIA™ are currently promoted as a wellness product rather than a diagnostics tool. It has been a well-thought-out decision for the team. Vaghefi says “As an entrepreneur, you have to think about generating revenue. It doesn’t matter if you have the best idea in the world – as long as you’re not generating revenue, you won’t have the means to make it viable. Somebody needs to be willing to pay you for what you have. So we decided to launch as a wellness product to generate revenue quickly. We do understand that it’s a much more valuable value proposition if this product becomes a medical product, because as a wellness product, you cannot refer people to a cardiologist or other specialist. However, converting from a wellness product to a medical product needs a few million dollars, and years of work.” Toku Eyes ultimate aim, addressed by their regulatory strategy, is to become an officially recognised diagnostics tool to fast-track referral to specialists. Currently if Toku Eyes technology identifies indicators of a serious medical problem, it will lead to a conversation with a general practitioner. 

Market entry strategy
Vaghefi emphasises the importance of travel. “Get outside of New Zealand and look into the market that you are trying to reach in person. The thing about New Zealand is that you’re so far away you’re getting second hand information. Being on the ground, shaking people’s hands in person, sitting at a dinner table, makes a lot of difference.”

At the time of this interview, Vaghefi was in San Francisco, having travelled to 12 American cities within a month. Toku Eyes have their sights firmly set on the United States. It is estimated that 136 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes today, and over the next ten years, one in three will have a heart attack, while one in ten will go blind. Vaghefi says “We are often asked about market entry into Asia or Europe. The world is an extremely big place, you will never conquer it all.” 

Vaghefi is currently advising three other groups of medical researchers who are pondering starting a venture. His ultimate advice is to just do it. “You can mentally prepare yourself, educate yourself and try to understand what’s going to happen when you choose the lifestyle of an entrepreneur, but then at some point you need to say goodbye to your old life and go for it. The best way to learn is to jump in and give it a try.”

Inspired? The Velocity $100k Challenge is now open. Applications close midday 1 August.

Ehsan
Ehsan

28 June 2022

Toku Eyes AI technology scans eyes to predict the likelihood of blindness, stroke or heart disease. What sounds like science fiction is now science fact, currently operating in over 70 clinics worldwide. Having recently completed a $3.6 million investment round, the venture is now looking to expand operations from New Zealand, Australia and India into the United States.

Toku Eyes was founded by University of Auckland scientist and lecturer Ehsan Vaghefi whose entire professional career has been informed by the needless suffering that his father experienced. His father lost his vision to congenital glaucoma when Vaghefi was four years old. Had it been diagnosed early, he could have kept his eyesight. It is thought that 90% of cases of blindness today is due to undiagnosed disease and is preventable. Following 15 years as a research scientist and academic, Vaghefi has become an entrepreneur to ensure that the solutions he develops can reach as many people as possible.

Professor John Marshall, the inventor of laser eye surgery, says “Using the eye as a diagnostic device for conditions outside the eye makes it so now opthamologists can begin to talk to the cardiovascular surgeon. This has huge potential that will ramify throughout medicine.”

Vaghefi says “I’ve published 45 scientific peer reviewed papers, twice as many conference papers, and three patents. Through research I’ve probably helped hundreds of scientists whereas in the past three years, I have helped hundreds of thousands of people. Without going through this pain of becoming an entrepreneur (and it is a painful process), people outside of academia won’t have had the opportunity to benefit from that research.”

Early beginnings with entrepreneurship
Vaghefi first developed his interest and knowledge of entrepreneurship through participating in programmes such as the free Velocity entrepreneurship development programme offered by the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), and through support from the University’s commercialisation company UniServices. Vaghefi credits opportunities such as the Velocity $100k Challenge with being valuable in instilling new knowledge and skills. “If you win, great, you have cash to experiment and put towards your minimum viable product. But the real value is in the experience of pitching in front of other entrepreneurs, and defending your idea. Scientists, myself included, look at all the good things about our idea, but lack the perspective of a commercial enterprise. And 99% of the time, good ideas don’t work because they are poorly executed. Challenges like this help you encounter difficult questions that you’ve never faced before. For example, one of the questions I was asked was, what is the revenue model? I had to google revenue model. Or, what is your regulatory strategy? I had no idea what a regulatory strategy was. But then that strategy defines everything about your invention. So programmes like Velocity are a bootcamp, forcing you to use those sorts of brain muscles that you’ve never used before.”

Advice on earning the means to make an impact
Vaghefi is pragmatic about the mental toughness and humility needed to access the means to bring ideas to life. He says “In the early stages, when the company doesn’t have revenue, you’re asking people to invest in your idea, and in your capability to execute it, without a track record. Going through pre-seed funding rounds is really tough as you have to convince people that are not necessarily experts in your sort of field that this is a good idea. It will ultimately lead to improvement and innovation as you’ll be asked questions that you haven’t thought of. But it takes a lot of mental toughness to be able to deal with that and you have to be okay with criticism and hearing a lot of ‘no’.”

Toku Eyes AI platforms ORAiCLE™ & THEIA™ are currently promoted as a wellness product rather than a diagnostics tool. It has been a well-thought-out decision for the team. Vaghefi says “As an entrepreneur, you have to think about generating revenue. It doesn’t matter if you have the best idea in the world – as long as you’re not generating revenue, you won’t have the means to make it viable. Somebody needs to be willing to pay you for what you have. So we decided to launch as a wellness product to generate revenue quickly. We do understand that it’s a much more valuable value proposition if this product becomes a medical product, because as a wellness product, you cannot refer people to a cardiologist or other specialist. However, converting from a wellness product to a medical product needs a few million dollars, and years of work.” Toku Eyes ultimate aim, addressed by their regulatory strategy, is to become an officially recognised diagnostics tool to fast-track referral to specialists. Currently if Toku Eyes technology identifies indicators of a serious medical problem, it will lead to a conversation with a general practitioner.

Market entry strategy
Vaghefi emphasises the importance of travel. “Get outside of New Zealand and look into the market that you are trying to reach in person. The thing about New Zealand is that you’re so far away you’re getting second hand information. Being on the ground, shaking people’s hands in person, sitting at a dinner table, makes a lot of difference.”

At the time of this interview, Vaghefi was in San Francisco, having travelled to 12 American cities within a month. Toku Eyes have their sights firmly set on the United States. It is estimated that 136 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes today, and over the next ten years, one in three will have a heart attack, while one in ten will go blind. Vaghefi says “We are often asked about market entry into Asia or Europe. The world is an extremely big place, you will never conquer it all.”

Vaghefi is currently advising three other groups of medical researchers who are pondering starting a venture. His ultimate advice is to just do it. “You can mentally prepare yourself, educate yourself and try to understand what’s going to happen when you choose the lifestyle of an entrepreneur, but then at some point you need to say goodbye to your old life and go for it. The best way to learn is to jump in and give it a try.”

Inspired? The Velocity $100k Challenge is now open. Applications close midday 1 August.


EMAIL
CIE@AUCKLAND.AC.NZ

PHONE
09 923 4526

NEWSLETTER SIGN UP

POSTAL ADDRESS
THE UNIVERSITY OF AUCKLAND BUSINESS SCHOOL
PRIVATE BAG 92019, AUCKLAND

 

 

 

WUNAPRUU21