Too much screen-time and too little outdoors-time makes Asia’s studyholic minors a gold mine for contact lense maker Visioneering Technologies.

Visioneering (ASX:VTI) is aiming for the highly myopic markets of East Asia — such as South Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore — where the rates of childhood shortsightedness are through the roof.

Up to 96 per cent of school leavers in South Korea have myopia, according to research by professor Ian Morgan of Australian National University.

In China it’s 80 per cent and in Singapore 82 per cent. About 20 per cent of schoolchildren in East Asia are in the high risk category for myopia — a level that kind result in permanent blindness.

By comparison, 20 per cent of Australian school leavers are shortsighted.

Visioneering makes contact lenses for myopia (short sightedness) and presbyopia (long sightedness). While the US is its home base and major market, the company is now turning to Asia, says chief Stephen Snowdy.

“Hong Kong is easiest because they do not require regulatory approval of contact lenses. China is the most time-consuming space, so we do want to start on that right away because it will take time to get approval. And Japan and Korea are on our list.”

Asia’s childhood epidemic

Visioneering is part of a movement of researchers and companies trying to slow the progression of myopia.

It’s a field that only became apparent in the early 2000s with the East Asian myopia “epidemic”.

Myopia is environmental, not genetic, says professor Morgan, who built a career in the field.

Pic: Visioneering
Myopia, or short sightedness, is when light rays fall in front of the retina. Graphic: Visioneering

“Up until the early 2000s people still overwhelmingly believed myopia was genetic and there was an implication that you might not be able to do much about it,” he told Stockhead.

“But as this epidemic in East Asia became clear, it was also clear that it couldn’t be genetic.

“Our estimate is that genetics only makes up about 1 per cent of the population with myopia. When talking about 80-90 per cent at the end of schooling, it’s something to do with abnormal environments.”

“The dominant theory for a long time is that it’s all about doing too much of what we call ‘near work’… The bit that was missing and appears to be a stronger effect is the effect of time outdoors.”

The proof was Taiwan. In 2012 Dr Morgan’s research found 85 per cent of young Taiwanese adults were myopic.

But a government effort in 2010 mandating time outdoors has brought that down to under 80 per cent, he says.

Glasses can worsen myopia

Dr Snowdy says the last decade and a half of research has found that regular contact lenses and glasses can actually worsen myopia.

Myopia occurs when light beams entering the eye converge in front of the retina (conversely, long sightedness is when they focus behind the retina), because the whole eyeball is too long.

Dr Snowdy says regular lenses make the light rays converge on the retina, in effect lengthening the focus, but don’t do the same for peripheral light. The eye ball keeps lengthening to compensate for that light, the myopia keeps getting worse.

“There are optical factors within the eye that are responsible for telling the eye to keep growing which make the myopia worse and worse, and what we were able to do with our lenses is stop those factors that tell the eye to grow,” he told Stockhead.

Recent research from the US suggests Visioneering’s lenses can halt the progression of myopia by up to 96 per cent in children.

Pic: Visioneering
Graphic: Visioneering

Dr Snowdy says they can teach children as young as five to use the contact lenses that effectively block out peripheral light.

The $5 billion possible market in the US is where Visioneering is building its sales infrastructure – they’ve hired 20 sales people since listing in March – so the move into Asia will be via partners who can negotiate the regulatory processes.

Visioneering closed on Monday at 45c, just higher than the listing price of 42c.