One person who has been critical to Alcon’s innovation story for more than a decade is Pooria Kashani, Ph.D., Head of R&D Medical Digital Solutions. We spoke with Pooria about his fascinating professional background, the philosophy around advancing digitization, and how he and his team are passionate about the modern era of eye care.
How did you get to where you are today in your career?
I’m an engineer and technologist. I started my career working with a class of advanced aerospace materials called viscoelastics, which exhibit both fluid and solid-like behavior, similar to vitreous gel found in the eye. Working with a group of clinical researchers and ophthalmologists at UCLA, where I received my Master and Doctorate in engineering, I helped create a comprehensive biomechanical model of vitreous gel for the eye with applications in diagnostics, ophthalmic simulation and digital twins, drug delivery and surgery. A group of Alcon associates became interested in our research, and eventually, I came to work here.
I’ve been with Alcon almost 12 years now. I was fortunate to be involved in the research and development in different areas like surgical materials, instrumentation, equipment and software. I’ve noticed a great opportunity in our device ecosystem and the healthcare space at large: connecting equipment to the cloud and utilizing data and machine learning to drive efficiency.
Eventually, I started leading the development of SMARTSolutions, which is Alcon’s comprehensive cloud-based digital platform uniquely designed for surgical ophthalmic practices, as the Program Head. Our first application introduced in the U.S. is called SMARTCataract. Before, during and after cataract surgery, it links data systems and most diagnostic devices to the operating room and post-op clinic. We’ve seen how this application has already delivered substantial time savings and efficiencies for surgeons and their patients. More recently, I have been leading one of our R&D Technology Platforms, Medical Digital Solutions, supporting innovations in digital technologies, artificial intelligence and product security.
Effectively utilizing data doesn’t come without challenges. Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges you’ve encountered?
In my opinion, the biggest challenges are evidenced through history. The world is entering the 5th Industrial Revolution – powered by artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, machine learning and robotics – and every iteration following its predecessor is smarter and faster. Societally, these innovations have infiltrated every facet of our life. If you want to buy something, there’s an app for that. You’re hungry? Food will be at your doorstep in 20 minutes. But healthcare is still trying to catch up to the 4th Industrial Revolution, characterized by internet connectivity and data sufficiency. The application of AI and machine learning, such as for e-commerce and self-driving cars, is still missing in healthcare. In addition, the healthcare system is massively complex and highly regulated, with many legacy systems still operating using older technologies.
“To reach that level of innovation in eye care, we are focusing on building a solid foundation through connectivity, maximizing data assets, centralizing our data, building modern databases, and constructing a best-in-class cloud platform and user-centric applications.”
– Pooria Kashani, Ph.D., Head of R&D Medical Digital Solutions
To reach that level of innovation in eye care, we are focusing on building a solid foundation through connectivity, maximizing data assets, centralizing our data, building modern databases, and constructing a best-in-class cloud platform and user-centric applications. Our challenge is to create and evolve a reliable and secure ecosystem of cloud connectivity that integrates across ophthalmic diagnostic and surgical equipment enabling surgeons to aggregate, organize and analyze all relevant data within a single, integrated solution. We address this through working closely with our Alcon equipment teams and industry leaders – Philips and Amazon AWS – to ensure we have a flexible, scalable platform and applications that we can continue to advance.
Now more than ever, we have valuable data, but the remaining challenge is to employ this to improve the ophthalmic field while maintaining efficiency for health care providers. We also need to be mindful that technology alone isn’t enough, it has to be aligned with culture, economic models, workflow, regulatory and ethics.
How do you see artificial intelligence and machine learning tools impact surgeons and patients in the future?
We’ve seen great improvements in surgical materials, tools and processes than ever before. And as people continue to live longer, they expect more from their surgical outcomes. At Alcon, what we want to do next is utilize the power of data to identify the right treatment and personalize it for individual patients to increase probability of their satisfaction. Using the artificial intelligence and machine learning tools available today, we can provide patients with more options tailored to their lifestyle needs. This will help health care providers and surgeons to approach advanced surgical planning and treatment with more confidence than ever before.
How critical is digital to Alcon and ophthalmology looking ahead?
The drive for digital innovation does not only come from Alcon, but also from the healthcare industry at large. There is plenty of evidence to show that innovation in the next 10 years will be powered by digital and data in healthcare and med-tech, and in many cases has only been accelerated by the pandemic. Alcon has proven its relevance in innovation by creating an integrated smart equipment ecosystem—from the clinic to the operating room. We’ve chosen to participate in this wave of innovation, powered by AI, machine learning and data. As an organization, we aspire to be at the forefront of innovation in ophthalmology. We have the ideas. We have the skillsets. We have the drive. We have the support of our customers and have been there for many surgical ophthalmic needs through the years. We will be the ones to take eye care into the new era of connected health.