Eye Opener

Kai Su

President, Technology Resource

By Andrew Karp

If the name Kai Su, Ph.D. doesn’t ring a bell for you, chances are you know some of the products he has developed. Dr. Su, a polymer chemist, holds over 80 patents related to polymer material and process for the ophthalmic field. Over the past three decades, he has worked as a top researcher for succession of major optical companies.

As executive vice president and head of the advanced technology division of CIBA Vision in the ’80s and ’90s, he developed Softcolors tinted contact lenses, Illusions opaque contact lenses, Ultrablock UV block lenses and In-a-Wink contact lens disinfection system. Before that, Dr. Su developed the Opti-Clean disinfection system for Alcon Laboratories and spincastable silicone contact lenses for Bausch & Lomb.

In 1995, Dr. Su and a group of former CIBA employees founded Technology Resource International (TRI), a contract research and development firm in Alpharetta, Ga. specializing in medical ophthalmic optics and electro-optics. The company developed a proprietary lens casting technology that was commercialized by 2C Optics and is now being used by Rodenstock North America. TRI’s most recent project involved developing a one-minute fast cure ophthalmic lens manufacturing process that is the basis for the new NexGen system that is being marketed by NexGen Vision.

What are some of the most promising areas of ophthalmic lens technology today? 
Short term the most promising areas are improvements to existing technology. As it gains acceptance and continues to evolve, cast-to-prescription will see more technological advancements. Lens materials will see continued improvements. The recent introduction of polycarbonate-like materials with improved attributes is an example. In addition, coatings of all kinds will continue to evolve. 

Do you believe lenses that are either cast in-lab or in-office will ever take a significant share of market away from mass manufactured lenses? If so, how soon? 
Some larger laboratories already have casting capabilities and others will follow. Today’s casting technology has the capability to manufacture a wide range of lens types and prescriptions in several lens materials. With time, better materials will make in-lab cast lenses cost competitive with stock lenses and mass-produced lenses. Although it’s difficult to cite an exact number, within the next five years, a laboratory could conceivably cast up to 20 percent of its product. 

What are the current limitations of in-lab or in-office casting? How can they be overcome?
The main issue with current lens casting technology is lens material availability. The key to a profitable casting operation is in the product mix. Labs will want to cast larger volume lens types and Rx ranges.

Currently, only mid-index lens (1.56) materials are available, but lenses made of other material can be produced. It would require some new molds.

While not the material of choice for every lens, a cast-to-prescription mid-index lens offers a significant advantage. A lab can provide the benefits of a thin mid-index lens without surfacing issues common with some traditionally cast mid-index materials. Additional capability will improve as new lens designs and materials evolve. 

What do you think about the new “free form” or “direct surfacing” technologies that some are using to make customized progressives?
The concept of tailor-made lenses is very interesting. However, current technology is costly and time consuming. Plus, refraction equipment is not refined enough to provide the detail needed to make a truly custom lens. With time, these technologies may become more viable.

What is the potential for auto-focusing lenses?
Auto-focusing lenses is a very exciting concept. Camera manufacturers have spent a lot of time improving this technology. With this research, the capability to have truly perfect lenses does exist, but it will take a great deal of R&D to adapt it to an ophthalmic lens application. I don’t think it will happen very soon.

Describe the eyewear we’ll be wearing in 2010. 
Right now, I don’t see any lens technology that will substantially change what we’ll be wearing in 2010. It will be basically the same kind of lenses as today in better materials. Perhaps it will be a free-formed progressive or some specialty lens. As for the cost-benefit issue, the question is whether the general public is willing to pay more money for custom-made eyewear. You can make an analogy with clothes. Some people like tailor-made clothes, but the general public still likes small, medium or large.