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The Dubai startup with smart contact lenses in its sights

Smart contact lens creators Valentyn Volkov and Roman Axelrod Xpanceo
Xpanceo's Valentyn Volkov (left) and Roman Axelrod 'intend to create the next generation of computing'
  • Xpanceo has new base in Dubai
  • Invested $6m in building lab
  • Smart lens tech ‘needed by humanity’

In 1508, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched the concept of contact lenses in his Codex of the Eye, laying the groundwork for enhancing human sight. 

Fast forward a few centuries, and this early idea has evolved dramatically.

Today’s contact lenses are on the brink of another step forward. New technology goes beyond correcting vision to display image, video and augmented reality (AR) information directly onto the wearer’s eyes. 

The Tony Stark-style sci-fi lenses can also gather and transmit data, monitor health in real time, and even provide night vision and zoom capabilities. 

Wearables such as Apple’s Vision Pro and Meta’s Oculus can offer immersive experiences, but the bulky technologies are limited in practicality as a daily-use device.

Development hurdles

Smart contact lenses are not a new concept but they have had their share of setbacks. A notable effort is Google’s failed attempt through its Verily “moonshot” project.

Apple and Samsung have also filed patents that indicate future possibilities for smart contact lenses.

Although such technology is still years away from being a mainstream consumer product, Dubai-based “deep tech” startup Xpanceo says it is breaking new ground. Deep tech is the pursuit of technology solutions based on substantial engineering challenges.

Founded in 2021, the company says it has made significant progress, having created and successfully tested three distinct prototypes so far.

Its efforts were given a boost in October with the securing of $40 million in seed funding from Hong Kong-based Opportunity Ventures, making it the top fundraiser for the month in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We are confident such a gadget will hit stores between 2027 and 2028,” Roman Axelrod, Xpanceo’s founder and managing partner, told AGBI.

“We believe this technology is needed by humanity. This will be one of the key form factors for a computer of the future.”

The goal, he explains, is to shrink smartphone and watch technology into contact lens form that “makes it almost part of your body”. 

This would do away with the need to use multiple devices – a practice Axelrod calls “obsolete”.

Xpanceo smart contact lenses team at workXpanceo
All of the Xpanceo team of scientists, now based in the UAE, are from Ukraine and Russia

Smart lenses have the potential to offer a wide range of business applications in fields such as aerospace, gaming, education, healthcare, and sports, particularly in scenarios where real-time data is crucial.

Xpanceo says it has set itself apart from potential competitors by developing a new advanced optical material for an ultra-thin lens, which still has enough computing power and battery life for all-day use.

Valentyn Volkov, co-founder and scientific partner at Xpanceo, believes the technology would also eventually contribute to reducing global energy consumption.

“Everything which is smaller and more compact requires less energy and produces less heat,” he told AGBI.

The first iteration of Xpanceo’s lenses will allow for low-light and enhanced vision. 

The second will track health markers such as stress, body temperature and blood sugar, and the third will offer full functionality as well as displaying visual content. 

Verified Market Research valued the market for smart contact lenses at $6.44 billion in 2022 and it is projected to reach $14.49 billion by 2030, with a compound annual growth rate of 10.67 percent from 2023 to 2030.

Xpanceo smart contact lensesXpanceo
Xpanceo says it will create iterations of its smart contact lenses with increasing capabilities

Xpanceo has invested about $6 million in building its Emerging Technology Research Center in Dubai.

The lab is recognised as one of the top 10 research institutions in the UAE according to Nature Index, and among the top five optics laboratories in the world according to international consulting firm BCG.

Axelrod said investors in the region need to be brave to fuel deep tech.

“Do not expect a 10x return within three years,” he said. “Expect a 100x return within seven to ten.”

Working together

The Russia-Ukraine war has spurred an influx of deep tech founders and scientists into the UAE.

Xpanco’s team of 50 scientists based in the UAE all come from Russia and Ukraine. 

The lack of sanctions against Russia in the UAE positions it as a safe haven amid the ongoing conflict.

“We intend to create the next generation of computing,” Axelrod, from Moscow, said. “It would be just stupid to lose the company because of the inability to work together. We are a great example of Ukrainians and Russians working together to achieve a better future.”

Volkov, from Ukraine, added that the UAE’s infrastructure, diverse population and startup ecosystem made it the “perfect place” to setup the business.

“Dubai is one of the most open-minded places in the world right now and the region likes futuristic and visionary projects,” he said.

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