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Toku Eyes

Toku Eyes poised for US breakthrough after big industry names back $13m raise

Toku Eyes poised for US breakthrough after big industry names back $13m raise 768 512 Toku Eyes

Toku Eyes founder Dr Ehsan Vaghefi says his company’s AI software can analyse eye images faster than a human clinician and pick up things they might miss. 

Auckland-based Toku Eyes seems poised to make it big in North America following a US$8 million ($13m) Series A raise involving two of the biggest players in the US optometry market.

Toku Eyes makes AI-powered software that analyses scans of the back of your eye. Because your eye is transparent, it’s one of the easiest ways to get a picture of your veins – and changing colour or shape that indicates a heightened risk of type 2 diabetes, a stroke or cardiovascular problems.

The idea is to not just scan for diabetes-related preventable blindness, but give you a picture of your overall health.

Toku founder Associate Professor Ehsan Vaghefi says a cardiovascular checkup would ordinarily entail a trip to your GP, then a referral to a specialist as you navigate an often jammed health system. He sees Toku Eyes’ platform being available in every optometrist in every mall, making it faster, cheaper and easier to get a snapshot of your cardiovascular health.

The funding round was led by Nasdaq-listed National Vision (market cap: $1.6 billion), the second biggest optical retailer in the US, and Japan’s Topcon Healthcare – a Japanese firm that’s one of the world’s larger makers of eye examination instruments….

Read the full article here…

By: Chris Keall

Toku Inc. Series A Preferred Investment Round Led by National Vision, Inc. and Topcon Healthcare

Toku Inc. Series A Preferred Investment Round Led by National Vision, Inc. and Topcon Healthcare 768 512 Toku Eyes

To commercialize Toku’s artificial intelligence platform that analyzes retinal images to detect cardiovascular disease and other potential health risks

DULUTH, Ga.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Toku Inc., a leader in applying AI-powered diagnostic and screening tools to retinal imaging, announced today the closing of its $8 million Series A Preferred financing round. The financing was co-led by National Vision, Inc. (NASDAQ: EYE), one of the largest optical retailers in the United States, and Topcon Healthcare, a leading provider of medical devices and software solutions for the global eye care community.

“We are proud to gain the support of two companies that play essential roles in vision care and optical technologies worldwide”

The investment round will help Toku accelerate the development of technologies that use artificial intelligence to analyze retinal images for biometric markers linked to overall health and risk of cardiovascular events, stroke, and diabetes. To maximize market access, Toku applies its technology to leading retinal cameras.

“We are proud to gain the support of two companies that play essential roles in vision care and optical technologies worldwide,” said Toku co-founder and CEO Associate Professor Ehsan Vaghefi. “Over 80% of cardiac events and diabetes related blindness could be prevented by identifying risk and applying targeted interventions. We are building a future in which more people have affordable access to this critical health data — all from analyzing a retinal image.”

“Through AI-powered technology, Toku has found a way to identify potentially life-saving information quickly, accurately, and unobtrusively during a routine eye exam. We’re investing to help make that technology available to everyone who relies on us to help them see better, to live better, while also bridging the gap between eyecare providers and primary care,” said Priti Patel, O.D., National Vision’s Senior Vice President of Healthcare Strategy and Development. “This is an opportunity to help shape AI technologies that will prioritize better outcomes for patients and deepen the quality of care we’re able to provide.”

“Topcon is supporting technology for early detection of diseases of and through the eye,” said Akifumi Baba, President of Topcon Medical Systems. “Toku retinal image analysis technology will do just that by giving people access to potentially life-saving health insights while overcoming traditional access and affordability barriers that too often accompany new healthcare tools. We are excited to provide our data science expertise to Toku Inc. and to welcome them as our first Entrepreneur in Residence.”

About Toku Inc.
Toku Inc. is a cutting-edge technology company that specializes in developing non-invasive, AI-powered diagnostic and screening tools using retinal imaging to measure cardiovascular and other health risk factors. The company’s flagship product, the BioAge Test, uses advanced imaging techniques to analyze various biometric markers in the body to accurately measure an individual’s biological age. The test is highly accurate and can provide a detailed report on an individual’s overall health and potential health risks, including cardiovascular disease and stroke. Toku is committed to making its technology widely accessible, and the BioAge Test will soon be available through its major partnerships across the world.

The company’s technology is built on the latest research in artificial intelligence, and its team of experts includes leading scientists and medical professionals.

About National Vision Holdings, Inc.
National Vision Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: EYE) is the second largest optical retail company (by sales) in the United States with over 1,300 stores in 44 states and Puerto Rico. With a mission of helping people by making quality eye care and eyewear more affordable and accessible, the company operates five retail brands: America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, Eyeglass World, Vision Centers inside select Walmart stores, and Vista Opticals inside select Fred Meyer stores and on select military bases, and several e-commerce websites, offering a variety of products and services for customers’ eye care needs. For more information, please visit

About Topcon Healthcare
Topcon Medical Systems is a US subsidiary of Topcon Healthcare, which is part of Topcon Corporation (TSE 7732). Topcon Healthcare sees eye health differently. Our vision is to empower providers with smart and efficient technologies for enhanced patient care. Keeping pace with the ever-changing landscape of the healthcare industry, we offer the latest integrated solutions including advanced multi-modal imaging, vendor-inclusive data management, safe distancing, and ground- breaking remote diagnostic technology.

Topcon Healthcare is investing in startup companies focused on healthcare innovation with emphasis on digital health and shared care. The Entrepreneur in Residence program allows startups with aligned technology to reside in Topcon Healthcare to help achieve their strategic and business goals.

A truly global business, Topcon is focused on developing solutions to solve societal challenges in the mega-domains of healthcare, agriculture, and infrastructure. In healthcare, these challenges include increasing eye disease, rising medical costs, access to healthcare and physician shortages. By investing in value-driven innovations, Topcon works to help people to enjoy good health and a high quality of life.

Ehsan Vaghefi
+64 21 102 7705 (whatsapp)

Article originally on

42PLUS1 US Satellite Award

42PLUS1 US Satellite Award 768 512 Toku Eyes

Happy to announce the winner of the 42PLUS1 US Satellite Award! Congratulations Toku Eyes! 🚀🚀🚀

What a great innovation you shared at the DxPx Conference stage about the artificial intelligence (AI) engine THEIA of Toku Eyes and how it has grown since its inception in 2018 seeking to address cardiovascular & ocular disease manifest in the fundus.

Thank you for sharing your mission with everyone – to eliminate preventable health & vision deterioration, & have no relevant disease missed during consultation.

We are glad to have you as the wildcard to the 42PLUS1 Grand Finale happening at the DxPx EU on November 16th in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Visit to discover more about their technology and vision.

To learn more about 42PLUS1, visit our website at #diagnostics #digitalhealth #lifescience #precisionmedicine #42plus1

On a mission to democratize eyecare, Toku Eyes takes its technology to the U.S.

On a mission to democratize eyecare, Toku Eyes takes its technology to the U.S. 768 512 Toku Eyes

The company uses AI to detect eye health, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular conditions

There are 43 million people in the world who are blind, and another 295 million who have moderate-to-severe visual impairment. The shocking number is how many of those people have a disease that was preventable or treatable: nearly three quarters, meaning there are nearly 300 million people who should have their sight, but don’t.

One of the biggest obstacles is access to care, according to Ehsan Vaghefi, co-founder and CEO of Toku Eyes. His own father went blind as a child, spurring him to develop of an artificial intelligence platform for more accurate, and more accessible, healthcare diagnostics through eye scans.

“As I grew up, and learned more, it was interesting that a lot of these diseases of blindness that I see in my friends or their family members are very much preventable. It’s just they don’t have access to care; most of the time, they don’t have access to even the first screening, the first detection,” he said in an interview.

“My research has always been about coming up with novel technologies that can enable somebody to have an eye exam, cheaply, affordably, everywhere, so you wouldn’t need a clinician, because the clinician is probably the most expensive part of the system.”

The Auckland, New Zealand-based Toku Eyes achieves this through its two products: the first one, called THEIA, is an AI platform that can look at the images of the eye, without the need of a clinician, and quickly tell if  they need to go and see a clinician. The second product is called ORAiCLE, and it uses AI to recognize minute changes in the blood vessels to capillaries to determine a person’s risk of having a cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack.

The company, which is currently live in New Zealand and India, and which has been used by one million people so far, announced on Monday that it will be expanding its services to a new market: the United States.

Detecting heart disease through the eyes

While the idea behind THEIA was to provide patients with access to a simple eye health check through their primary care doctor, the company soon realized that it could detect more than conditions like diabetic Retinopathy, AMD, and cataracts; it could actually detect cardiovascular disease through changes in the blood vessels in the back of the eye.

“These changes are tiny and the clinician’s eye is not trained to look for them in an image, but the artificial intelligence can see them. So, about a year ago, we realized that our AI is not only showing us disease of the eye, sometimes it’s showing us something a comorbidity that is related to a disease of the eye,” said Vaghefi.

“Many times a blinding condition is a surrogate marker for something else. For example, you have hypertension, and it leads to bleeding in your eye, which leads to blindness, or you have diabetes, which leads to leakages of blood into the eye that leads to blindness.”

While eye doctors and ophthalmologist only tend to see these changes at the very end stages of the disease, when the problem has already gotten to the point where it’s noticable, ORAiCLE can detect it the beginning, years before the disease manifests itself, meaning that the patient can get a head start on the potential problem before it’s too late.

Toku Eyes’ platform is already being used as part of diabetic screening service in both the public and private sectors in New Zealand. It is also live in 20 clinics in India with the goal to be in 70 by the end of the year. So far, Toku’s products have been used by around one million people across both countries.

So far, THEIA has shown to be 96% accurate in its diagnosis, as compared to 90% for general ophthalmologists, while ORAiCLE is 25% more accurate in calculating cardiovascular risk than assessment tools on the American Heart Association and Mayo Clinic websites.

In terms of ROI, Toku has been shown to reduce the cost of screening, and increase the capacity of the same clinic, by 50% in New Zealand.

Expanding to the U.S.

While THEIA currently acts as a diagnostic tool for eye diseases, ORAiCLE is classified as a risk assessment tool (though the company hopes to change that over the next few years). As such, only ORAiCLE will initially be available in the U.S., as the company is currently seeking FDA approval to bring THEIA to market as well, something that Vaghefi expects to happen by the end of this year.

In the meantime, Toku has entered into partnerships with two companies to help bring its technology to patients in America, the first being EyeCheq, a company that puts robotic kiosks in retail locations; the company will be incorporating Toku’s software so that patients will be able to walk up to a kiosk and immediately capture an image of their eye.

“They wanted to have a whole team of clinicians in the background, assessing all the images that are coming through from these kiosks. Our collaboration with them is that you don’t need a team of clinicians, you just need one or two auditors, and the AI will just go through all the images and alert those that need to be seen by a clinician,” Vaghefi explained.

“Also, we can also identify people that are at high risk of cardiovascular events, and then work with that retailer, so the location that the camera is in, to see what other services can be provided for that person, including consultation, supplementation, and education.”

The other partnership is with Unified-Imaging, an image repository platform that gathers images from camera manufacturers. Toku will work with the company to be more of a data analytics platform.

“Based on these images, you can tell so much about this person. So, not only that person might get a referral, they might also get to be connected to these other points, like cardiology or nephrology,” said Vaghefi.

Through these partnerships and more, Toku eyes is planning, subject to finalizing regulatory clearances, to be present at more than 1,500 locations across the U.S. by 2025.

Of course, there are challenges that come with entering the U.S. health market, not the least of which is determining who will pays for this. Unlike New Zealand, which has a public health system, meaning the government pays for everything, the U.S. health market is much more complex.

“My day and night is consumed with who pays. The United States is interesting because there is a CPT code for use of AI for analyzing eye images. That’s one path; that code has been adopted by Medicare and Medicaid. So, we are looking into that but, at the same time, we believe that the cardiovascular product is very much an insurance or value-care provider product,” Vaghefi explained.

“It can tell an HMO or an insurance company, ‘the overall risk of your population is this and this is the 5% of your population that’s going to consume 50% of all the cost. If you focus on this population, and reduce the incidence rate in this 5% of the population, you’re going to save more than 50% of your entire intervention budget.’ We think there is an angle there. But, again, there’s a bit of work to be done.”

Making eye care accessible to everyone

All of this will help Toku’s larger mission, which is to expand access to care, and to help prevent treatable diseases from turning into something that causes blindness, or other serious health problems.

It’s for that reason that Toku has purposely made it so that its software can work with any camera, so that anyone would be able to access it and use it.

“Some other AIs are very much limited to high level, good quality, best grade cameras. We don’t do that. The technology is only good if it’s accessible to the lowest socioeconomic group in the society, i.e. the person who may not be able to afford to go and see a specialist. They may not even afford to go to see a doctor, but they should have access to technology,” Vaghefi said.

“If it’s not accessible in your Walmart or CVS or something like that, then it’s not meeting my standards. So, that’s why we put a lot of time and effort into our AI that can work with a lower grade, probably lower technology, camera that a CVS can afford to put in in their locations, not the $50,000 camera used by your eye specialist, but the $5,000 camera that can sit in your subway station.”

In fact, the company is eventually planning on allowing patients to capture images themselves on their own mobile phones, something that will likely be more widely adopted due to the rise in virtual care and telemedicine during COVID.

This should finally make it so that more people don’t run into the same situation as Vaghefi’s father and lose their sight to a disease that could have been prevented if it was caught early.

“What bothers me, and what keeps me going, is that my father lost his eyesight 60 years ago and, today, the same thing can happen to another person, another child that just doesn’t seem to have the access. We have had 60 years of technology innovation and nothing changed in healthcare. That’s the bit that bothers me,” he said.

“It’s all about making sure that somebody who’s coming from a low income family, maybe in a remote place, not a very well educated family, they still have access to the basic level of health, being an eye check or a cardiovascular check. Nobody should die, or go blind, because they didn’t have access to a simple check. That’s just not acceptable anymore.”

Article originally published on

By Steven Loeb

NZ-based AI firm launches tool to assess heart risk through retinal scans in U.S.

NZ-based AI firm launches tool to assess heart risk through retinal scans in U.S. 768 512 Toku Eyes

Toku Eyes, a New Zealand-based healthcare AI company, is launching its tool that assesses heart risk through a retinal scan in the U.S.

The tool, called CLAiR, uses an AI platform to identify cardiovascular threats more accurately than existing risk calculators, the company claims. The platform recognizes subtle changes in aspects like blood vessels and pigmentation to identify a person’s risk of a stroke or heart attack in the next five years.

Many Americans with diabetes are at risk of long-term complications like heart disease and blindness. Early diagnosis is critical for mitigating morbidity, but diagnosis has historically been a challenge.

“If you can see the future, you can change it,” Ehsan Vaghefi, co-founder and CEO of Toku Eyes, said in an announcement. “By looking inside the eyes, we get an in-depth view of what is happening inside the entire body to better assess the risk factors of each individual and identify high-risk individuals before their condition worsens. Our goal is to make health screening simple and easy to access for the entire population so we can get in front of underlying health risks and improve patient outcomes.”

Since using a retinal camera and the AI software requires minimal training, it is more cost-effective and accessible, the company argues. The AI platform uses an image of the back of the eye to do its assessment. It then provides personalized health guidance or recommends a specialist referral. The company says the technology also works accurately with low-resolution images.

Toku Eyes is also aiming to launch a separate tool to detect blinding conditions in the U.S. by the end of this year, pending FDA approval. As part of its expansion to the U.S., the company is partnering with EyeCheq, a company Toku Eyes says is building out a network of self-service retinal image kiosks across the U.S. Another partner is Unified-Imaging, a cloud-based solution for capturing image data.

The company’s platform is currently used as part of diabetic screening services in the private and public sectors in New Zealand, according to its press release.

CLAiR is being released as a wellness device and therefore does not require FDA clearance, the company told Fierce Healthcare. This classification will also enable Toku Eyes to share cardiovascular risk data with payers to help improve the overall health of their members. Altogether, Toku Eyes hopes to be at more than 1,500 locations across the U.S. by 2025.


Article originally published on

By Anastassia Gliadkovskaya

Kiwi AI tool launches in India

Kiwi AI tool launches in India 768 512 Toku Eyes

An Artificial Intelligence retinal screening tool, developed in New Zealand, is being used in 20 eye clinics in India and is about to launch in the United States.

THEIA has been created by Toku Eyes and provides diabetic screening to detect signs of eye disease. Clinical trials were held at Counties Manukau DHB in its central and satellite units, as well as a private optometrist in Palmerston North.

Co-founder Ehsan Vaghefi says the company has been working hard over the past year to convert the AI from a research tool into a medical product and it is now registered in India and the United States as such.

The medical product includes the development of a special camera to take the necessary images, clinical audit functionality and a platform to capture patient information and present the results to clinicians.

The new technology is now being used in the largest eye hospital chain in the world, Aravind in India, which sees around four million patients a year and performs around 500,000 eye surgeries.

“In a system of that scale, a tiny bit of technological advance introduces a lot of efficiencies,” explains Vaghefi.

He adds that the economies of scale of providing a medical Device-as-a-Service on the cloud with a large population are huge. While New Zealand does not have that scale, it benefits from the reduction in labour costs from not having a specialist view all screening images.

He says the tool could expand existing screening capacity by 50 percent and reduce labour costs by nearly a third, allowing more patients to access these services, including those in under-served areas.

Toky Eyes is also partnering with some US companies that provide screening stations, essentially providing the “brain behind the process”, Vaghefi says.

By the end of this year, THEIA is going to be operating in around 100 locations across a couple of states, rising to around 500 locations by the end of 2023.


Article originally published on

By: editor Rebecca McBeth

New Zealand tech company develops tool to detect diseases like diabetes

New Zealand tech company develops tool to detect diseases like diabetes 768 512 Toku Eyes

Around 280,000 New Zealanders have diabetes, with the disease almost three times more common in Māori than non-Māori. And mortality rates for the disease are nine times higher for Māori aged 43-64 years than non-Māori.

Health experts say early screening is essential, but the problem is that just 35 percent of Māori opt-in for these checkups.

But a New Zealand tech company is hoping to help curb the problem as well as other diseases using its artificial intelligence platform THEIA.

Feast your eyes on THEIA, the latest eye imaging diagnostic device.

It’s a way to detect eye diseases and other diseases like diabetes.

With a retinal photo, the software uses hundreds of thousands of data points to give risk predictions, whereas currently to get that sort of diagnosis you need to go through multiple tests and doctor visits.

“I truly believe we can change eye care first and general health care second,” THEIA founder and CEO Associate Professor Ehsan Vaghefi said.

That’s because the eye is the only external part of the body where we can photograph the blood vessels that feed vital organs. Combine this with THEIA and it’s a game-changer.

“We can look at the risk of diabetes in the eye and high cholesterol in the eye, and suddenly an image of your eye can tell us a lot about your general health and not just the eye,” Dr Vaghefi said.

Auckland ophthalmologist Dr David Squirell has been part of Aotearoa’s diabetic screening for over 15 years.

He said the technology is about as accurate as he can be and better than most junior doctors.

He said the artificial intelligence helps to identify those needing help urgently to adjust their lifestyle, diet or medication.

“Technology follows the patient, we want to make it easier for people to be screened because there are multiple barriers and one of them is just physical,” Dr Squirell said.

THEIA has the potential to expand existing screening capacity by around 50 percent and reduce labour costs by 30 percent

But for this Ngāi Tai descendant, it’s about better accessibility for Māori.

Diabetes is almost three times more common in Māori than in non-Māori.

“It’s completely portable and it can be run in any setting, it can be run in iwi community centres and the AI really gives us this ability to give the result without the need of a specialist,” chief commercial officer Francesca Logan said.

“We are having constructive conversations with the Ministry of Health and the Māori Health Authority and we are hoping that by next time that our technology will be accessible in many places across New Zealand,” Dr Vaghefi said.

Rather than a window to the soul, the eye is now the window to the future of your health.

NEWS – Newshub – Te Rina Kowhai
Article originally on

An easier way to detect diabetes through technology

An easier way to detect diabetes through technology 768 512 Toku Eyes

Detecting diabetes is about to get a whole lot easier.

A Kiwi company has created a revolutionary technology called THEIA, which uses AI to examine blood vessels in the eye to detect disease.

To explain the technology Jesse is joined by THEIA founder and CEO Associate Professor Ehsan Vaghefi.

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan
Article originally on

AI tool detects early signs of eye disease

AI tool detects early signs of eye disease 1024 683 Toku Eyes

The trial of an Artificial Intelligence retinal screening tool, developed in New Zealand, showed it did not miss any referable disease for diabetic patients at risk of eye disorders.

THEIA has been created by Toku Eyes and was tested for diabetic retinopathy. Co-founder Ehsan Vaghefi says the tool is being further developed to vastly improve early detection of eye disease such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.

Its use was trialed at Counties Manukau DHB in its central and satellite units, as well as a private optometrist in Palmerston North.

More than 900 patients, who are part of the diabetic screening programme, had their de-identified images screened as usual by retinal specialists, as well as by THEIA.

The study, conducted between March and May of this year, found the AI did not miss any patients with more than mild or vision threatening disease and the level of agreement with the clinicians was between 91-98 percent.

Vaghefi says people wait around six weeks to get their results from the current screening process, but with THEIA they would get them instantly. He says the tool could expand existing screening capacity by 50 percent and reduce labour costs by nearly a third, allowing more patients to access these services, including those in under-served areas.

Diabetic retinography is a leading cause of blindness in working age people, but there are screening backlogs nationwide.

Jacob Benefield, optometrist at Naylor Palmer Optometry in Palmerston North, says:

“Toku Eyes shows how AI can really help increase proactive retinal screening, maximising the time optometrists and ophthalmologists can spend with patients whose needs are more complex. Putting this tool into the hands of lab technicians and medical imagers will expand screening services, ensuring more people are seen sooner and improving their chances of early detection of diseases like diabetes,” 

Toku Eyes recently raised $3.6 million from investors to advance the commercialisation of THEIA and is applying for FDA approval in the US. Vaghefi says the AI platform is designed to handle lower quality images and anyone can be trained to operate the necessary machine, freeing up the time of specialists to focus on the 15-20 percent of people who need a consultation.

The use of AI also makes screening more accessible to people who struggle to attend hospital appointments. He would like to see a national diabetic screening programme developed with satellite units nationwide, supervised from the centre.

If you would like to provide feedback on this news story, please contact the editor Rebecca McBeth.

NEWS – editor Rebecca McBeth
Article originally on

Advice from a clear-sighted entrepreneur

Advice from a clear-sighted entrepreneur 1024 683 Toku Eyes

Ehsan Vaghefi has been a guide all his life. After all, when other children his age were being helped across the street by their parents, he was helping his blind father across roads.

Vaghefi is now a senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s School of Optometry and Vision Science as well as co-founder and CEO of the UniServices-backed startup Toku Eyes, a social enterprise that recently raised $3.6 million to bring its retina-scanning AI software to market. That means he’s on the cusp of achieving his life’s goal: helping prevent blindness on a large scale.

Vaghefi knows he’s just starting to see success as an entrepreneur. However, he’s learned a lot and is keen to help others who might be a step or two behind in commercialising their research.

The Toku Eyes back story

Vaghefi’s father was just a four-year-old boy in Iran when he lost his vision to congenital glaucoma. Had the disease been diagnosed and treated early, his vision could have been saved.

“All my academic and professional life has been driven by that story,” says Vaghefi.

After a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the University of New South Wales, Vaghefi began doctoral studies at the University of Auckland to research eye imaging. He stayed on after his PhD to teach and continue his research. His work resulted in 45 peer-reviewed papers and three patents. Still, he wasn’t satisfied.

“I was contributing to vision science but I wasn’t actually making an impact on society,” says Vaghefi.

Then, in 2018, Vaghefi met David Squirrell, an honorary University of Auckland academic and lead ophthalmologist for the national Diabetic Eye Screening Program.

“In a friendly conversation, he mentioned there were too many patients in his clinics for the number of staff,” says Vaghefi. “It was one of those serendipitous moments because I realised that with his clinical experience and my knowledge about artificial intelligence, we could do something about it.”

That’s how Toku Eyes, which means “My Eyes” in a mix of Te Reo Māori and English, was born.

Using AI to screen diabetic eyes

Most vision loss is treatable, but only if it’s caught early enough. One common cause is diabetic retinopathy, in which high blood sugar damages the tiny blood vessels in the retina.

In New Zealand, nearly 300,000 people live with diabetes. Only half of them are being screened yearly as they should be. The result is that, all too commonly, vision loss is caught only when patients are almost blind, says Vaghefi.

Currently, screening relies on bulky, expensive equipment, which means it’s largely confined to larger centres. Specially trained clinicians must also interpret the images one by one.

The system Vaghefi envisions involves simpler equipment sending images to a national, centralised AI system for immediate analysis. This would mean screening could be done in any shopping centre optometry shop or even through mobile clinics.

“AI excels at pattern recognition, so we’ve taught our software what a healthy retina looks like and what an unhealthy diabetic retina looks like,” says Vaghefi. “It can also grade the severity of disease. The information is sent back right away, so within seconds, the optometrist who took the image in Invercargill or wherever knows what to do with that patient.”

An expanding vision

Toku Eyes is currently trialling its technology in several locations in New Zealand. The next step? The world. The use of AI reduces time, cost and staffing pressures and increases access by reducing location barriers. These factors could be game-changers in low- to middle-income countries.

The company is now looking to move into Africa, the Pacific, and South and Southeast Asia, in part through partnership with KeraLink, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making treatment for corneal disease accessible to all.

“These aren’t markets we’re going into because we’re after profit; it’s something we want to do because we want to make a difference,” says Vaghefi.

Toku Eyes is also working with KeraLink on moving beyond the retina to develop AI tools that screen for cornea and lens diseases.

“The ultimate product will be a screening tool for all the major diseases of the eye, covering 97 to 98 percent of all causes of blindness,” says Vaghefi. “The tool has to be transportable, so it can be used in mobile clinics visiting rural areas, and it has to work with lower-quality eye cameras and in places where internet access may not be reliable. These are significant technical challenges, but we have solutions for most of them.”

Advice for researcher-entrepreneurs

Despite Vaghefi’s technical expertise, he had no background in business until he co-founded Toku Eyes three years ago. Now, to encourage other researchers to follow a similar path, he’s sharing some of the lessons he’s learned the hard way.

First, “don’t sit on your idea,” says Vaghefi. “You can be sure that somewhere, someone is thinking about the same things. Patent your idea and create a proof of concept as soon as possible.” UniServices helped in the patenting process when he initially had no idea how to go about it, he adds.

As an entrepreneur, be prepared to work hard and “do everything,” says Vaghefi. “You have to be the coder, the product tester, the person negotiating the deal.”

To grow, though, “you need the right team around you,” says Vaghefi. “Once you’ve got some seed funding, that’s the time to grow your team.”

Listen to quality advice from team members and outside sources. When he was raising initial seed funding, a Return on Science investment committee provided valuable insight on going abroad, says Vaghefi. However, when he returned for more money, the advice was tougher to swallow.

“They said, ‘You don’t need to raise money here anymore because you’re past this stage; you have to go outside.’ At the time, it hurt a lot, but it got me to play at a different level,” says Vaghefi.

Unlike the friendly environment at Return on Science, presenting to venture capitalists was “brutal” – but it taught Vaghefi his number-one lesson: to not give up.

“You’ll hear ‘no’ over and over. You’ll have to listen to people who doubt you, who throw everything at you to prove you’re wrong, but you have to believe in yourself and keep going.”

Another important lesson: apply for research grants.

“If you raise money through seed capital or venture capital, you have to give away part of your company. With research grants, you don’t,” says Vaghefi. “Use research grants to create a proof of concept, test it and redevelop it until you have something that works.”

When do you raise venture capital, don’t raise more than you need, because the more you raise, the more you dilute your ownership, says Vaghefi.

“I’ve seen founders lose motivation because they own too little of their company.”

A final lesson? “Stay true to your mission,” says Vaghefi. “I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs raise some money and act like that’s it; they’re successful. But really, it’s just the beginning of the work.”

For further advice, contact Ehsan Vaghefi through LinkedIn or via email at To learn more about how UniServices can help health researchers commercialise their work, contact Kent Lee at

Article originally published on Uni Services

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