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The Brand behind the Brands We Love

In brand-building, Healthcare, innovation, retail, Shopper Marketing on January 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Inmar leads the way in digital promotions

by Jeff Sandgren

As we wrap up another round of holiday shopping mania, there’s a powerful force at work behind the scenes. For more than 30 years a company you may not know has been quietly helping you shop every day, and lately they’re ambitiously working to change the way you’ll shop tomorrow. In the ‘Emerald City of Retail,’ the hidden Oz who’s helping to enhance your shopping experience (while not bothering to attract your attention) is a company called Inmar, and their ‘Intelligent Commerce Networks.’

Inmar Inside

Sometimes the brands you know and trust deliver on their Brand Promises by relying on other brands. Think ‘Intel Inside®[i]’: a great advertising slogan, catchy, memorable, succinct and effective. When you buy a computer, you’ll hopefully never even have to see the Intel chip, much less actually touch it; but the little sticker on the outside telling you it’s in there could easily sway your purchase decision. Another example, wordier but similarly powerful, is BASF’s old slogan:

We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better®[ii].

In both of these cases, the B2B company wants you, a consumer, to value their brands in order to make you feel better about buying – not from them, but from their customers, the B2C companies that sell finished consumer goods to you. It’s unlikely that you ever bought a chip directly from Intel or a drum of chemicals from BASF (unless you’re a bigger geek than the editors of BrandTech News, or go by the street name “Heisenberg.”)

But while you almost certainly know who Intel is, and probably have heard of BASF – the largest chemical company in the world (even if you don’t know what the letters stand for) – you might not know who Inmar is. And you might be surprised to learn that the financial transactions they process en masse daily have an annual aggregate value of about $44 billion across their promotion, supply chain and health care networks.

If you’ve ever clipped and used a paper coupon, chances are good that it was processed by Inmar. This was their first competency, and remains a major component of the company’s business. They started handling coupons back in the early 80’s, as Carolina Coupon Clearing, a company formed by the son of a Reynolds Tobacco exec who brought in a team of former IBM associates to elevate the process from one which, at the time, relied on weighing masses of paper coupons by the pound. The solutions they built, and the refinements that have evolved since, now enable a smooth, secure processing of billions of coupons from thousands of brands in countries around the globe. They currently process coupons for a large share of US companies; and they serve a global customer base with their broader promotional solution portfolio that has grown to include not only paper coupons, but also rebates, sweepstakes and now digital coupons – more on that in a minute. This approach of harnessing technology and smart thinking to improve complex processes still steers the company.

David Mounts, Inmar CEO

David Mounts, Inmar CEO

“It all starts and ends with people,” explained Inmar CEO David Mounts, at a recent interview. “We strive to find the best minds and intellectual capital we can, then we direct our investments to make it easier for bright people to deliver great solutions to our customers … and ultimately great experiences to consumers.”

Inmar innovation

In the coupon world, paper still dominates in sheer volume, but the most impressive growth percentages there days are being posted by digitally discovered coupons. Digitally discovered coupons fall into two major groups. The already familiar Print-At-Home (PAH) coupons – those discovered online and printed with home computers – increased in use by more than 12 percent in the first half of 2013, relative to 2012. The newer kid on the coupon block is the use of completely paperless “e-wallet” coupons, where the reward is either loaded to a consumer’s loyalty card or stored on a smartphone app. While still a small segment, the use of these promotions increased by more than 230 percent in the same period.

The targeting and personalization capabilities of these digital offers provide powerful new ways for marketers to engage and entice consumers with increasingly relevant offers, and to gain insights on what consumers preferred (and what provided the best return on investment). But with this new sophistication comes the matter of new complexity. To help brands and retailers cut through the cyber-maze, Inmar has developed their Offer Management app, which lets marketers easily create offers, aggregate performance data and score the promotional effectiveness of multiple offers across all channels.

The rapid development of these solutions by Inmar has, in part, been accelerated by two recent acquisitions: the first, a company that pioneered an innovative technology to facilitate the secure distribution and redemption of digital promotions; and the second, a company with deep expertise in shopper behavioral analytics. By combining Inmar’s own knowledge and experience of couponing and promotional strategies with the added power of analytics and shopper insights, and with the real-time, on-demand delivery of offers to smartphones and tablets, Inmar’s innovations are changing the promotional game for brands and retailers – and delivering offers to consumers on products they want, with promotion types they like, across the digital platforms they individually prefer.

Inmar integration

One shopper insight that everyone knows is that shoppers in the checkout line don’t want to be delayed. Retailers are keenly aware of that, and they are particularly (and rightly) sensitive to the impact of any new technology at checkout that might slow things down. So the big hurdle that digital couponing has had to clear has been one of achieving a seamless and super-fast digital redemption when the paperless coupons are presented. No one wants to download a coupon offer to their loyalty card or unique identifier, then have to wait for an elaborate network to validate the coupon, in a setting where passing seconds feel like minutes. But the validation can’t be skipped, either, because coupon fraud can cost retailers millions. Inmar’s point of sale technology, developed by acquired company M-Dot achieves secure, accurate, real-time redemption by leveraging the speed and scalability of cloud technology. In fact, prior to Inmar’s acquisition, M-Dot was chosen as the winner of Amazon Web Services’ Startup Challenge. The solution is so scalable that it has been demonstrated to execute over a million concurrent transactions in a 10th of second.

More recently, Inmar built on that impressive back-end integration with a promising new front-end partnership. They recently announced a strategic relationship with NCR, one of the top Point Of Sale (POS) system providers for retail. The new offering will integrate Inmar’s digital coupon solution with NCR’s marketing and POS applications, providing retailers with a powerful new platform for quickly and easily planning and implementing digital coupon campaigns, offering paperless coupons to shoppers across multiple touchpoints … including mobile phones and tablets.

According to Mounts, “Retailers that ‘opt in’ will be able to introduce digital promotions into their marketing efforts with remarkable speed – and at minimal cost.”

It’s a win-win-win solution: shoppers get the added savings of digitally discovered coupons, without slowing down their checkout experience; retailers get an easy platform for implementing their digital coupon campaigns; and consumer goods manufacturers get a much more targeted delivery mechanism that can yield new insights in minutes.

Inmar involved

For all the technology focus, Inmar hasn’t lost sight of its ‘human goals’ either. Ever since opening shop in Winston-Salem, Inmar has remained true to its community, where it is one of the area’s major employers. This part of North Carolina has seen economic decline over the past decades with the erosion of three of its major industries – tobacco, textiles and furniture – the latter two primarily declining due to relocation of the industries to cheaper offshore markets. Inmar, by contrast, has stayed in the game locally, opening three different offices as headquarters for its coupon, product returns and pharmacy solutions groups. Supporting operations in the supply chain, health care, and coupon redemption networks occupy around 30 additional facilities across North America.

Exterior_8.29.12

Now the company is upping its ante by consolidating all three local offices into a beautiful new complex in downtown Winston, with almost a quarter million square feet of modern office space, renovated from an old tobacco processing plant. Located on the edge of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, a cornerstone of the Renaissance of Winston-Salem, the new facility clearly underscores Inmar’s corporate social responsibility and its commitment to the local jobs it has created.

When Mounts says it all starts and ends with people, he clearly means it. – JTS


[i] Registered trademark of Intel Corporation

[ii] Registered trademark of BASF SE

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Top Ten Brand/Technology Stories for 2013

In Apple, brand-building, Healthcare, Microsoft, Steve Jobs on December 29, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Big Brand Hits and Misses From 2013

by Robert Liljenwall

Top TenIt’s been quite a year for big brand stories, and even bigger surprises. Here’s our take on the Top Ten stories for 2013, from the intersection of branding and technology.

 1)  Edward Snowden managed to build a powerful, influential global brand in less time than it takes to say, “Gotcha!”  And all on the back of technology and the US National Security Agency secrets he divulged starting in June 2013.  While he may not be a household word, he certainly is now infamously (or famously) known in every government spy agency, every major capital, and by every editor or newscaster carrying the day’s news.  Only 30 years old and a relatively low-level NSA contract employee, he managed to steal rarified, classified material that is called the most significant leak in US history.  He used The Guardian and The Washington Post while employed by NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to leak his material.  At his news conference from his ‘temporary home’ in Russia this past week, he says the leaks and subsequent chaos caused at the highest level of governments around the world has assured him of ‘victory.’  “Mission accomplished,” he says.  He thinks of himself as a hero while others have other apt descriptions.  Time will tell how this plays out.

2)  The National Security Agency’s brand image has fallen fast since the Snowden disclosures.  The NSA-Snowden story remains evolutionary as one judge tells the government to stop and another one just the other day says it’s OK.  But surely this NSA scandal has affected the US brand all over the world. The reality is that probably everyone else is doing it, too … so it’s probably more bark than bite from the average American point of view.  But in government circles, the confusion surrounding NSA and all government ‘oversight’ programs bothers many of us.

3)  Obamacare site bombed on launch.  Millions have been impacted by the false start, and the cancellations of 5 million-plus insured guarantees a major hit on Obama and his signature program.  The continuing debacle exposes tremendous technical shortcomings of government-run program.  How has this affected Obama’s brand?  Obama’s negative ratings continue their downward spiral. Recent polls show that most Americans don’t want or like the Affordable Care Act – and it’s just beginning.  Will more Americans lose or gain insurance coverage in early 2014? How will the voters’ sentiment play out in the midterm elections?  If there was a BrandTech News ‘perfect storm’, this was it!

4)  Cyber Monday surpassed expectations, and mobile commerce on smartphones and tablets are making inroads toward becoming the biggest e-commerce sales day in history, up 16.5 percent to $2.29 billion.  Mobile traffic (as a part of online sales) showed similar record sales – IBM’s data demonstrates that mobile shopping did grow significantly from last year – with traffic increasing by 45 percent to 31.7 percent share of all online traffic, and total sales growing by 55.4 percent year-over-year to surpass 17 percent share. But, mobile’s share of traffic was down 20 percent from Black Friday while its share of sales was down 21 percent.

5)  Target‘s 40 million ‘error.’  This story moves onto the list and no, it’s not the first time hackers have gotten into credit card files.  But 40 million?  Is this a brand-buster for Target? We at BrandTech News think that Target has really mismanaged this fiasco – offering a lame 10 percent discount  … they beefed it up a bit, but it was, as one writer put it: “… a puny effort.”  News reports that a group in a Target parking lot were regaling in their recently purchased Christmas gifts – only to have police discovered they did so with purloined credit card #s.  It sends a chilling message on how fragile the relationship there is between a brand’s success and the failure of technology.  What will it take before you trust Target again?  We’re still skeptical.

6)  Changes at the top – Microsoft’s Ballmer moving on. Michael Dell takes control back. Personal brands linked to their technology heart/soul have been the hallmark of America’s technology history, starting with such iconic brands as Thomas Edison, Tom Watson, Bill Hewlett and David Packard.  Their brands were synonymous with their technology.  Ballmer leaves on a mixed note and no one has been named to replace him.  Dell tries to reclaim his past glory days by taking his namesake company private.  We believe that Apple, Google, and even Samsung have all whizzed past the former Whiz Kid. The future of the PC – as we used to know it before smartphones and tablets – is in doubt.  And let’s not forget ‘golden boy’ Ron Johnson – former head of retail for Apple – who was unceremoniously disposed as CEO of J. C. Penney.  Personal brands will be forever linked to their founders and managers over time … and to be sure, it’s a challenge to survive in these chaotic times.  Perhaps Steve Jobs ‘got out’ at the right time – the pinnacle of his career and company?  Time will tell.  We’ll be watching.

7)  Apple wins China Mobile.  This is probably the biggest, best news Apple has had in a while.  Their fall launch was successful to a point – rave reviews on the technology and upgraded products, but capturing China Mobile with 760 million users is the big (nix that, it was HUGE) win on the global stage.  Surely this will propel Apple’s future onto solid ground in Asia, but on the homefront, Apple has some homework to do, in our view.  The Apple story is two-edged – #1 – Apple has made up lost ground on its stock closing in on $600 after plunging below $400 in the past 52 weeks … .and Apple is now worth $503 billion, making it the most valuable company on the Planet.  So the brand continues to perform well with investors, but the #2 worry is whether Apple has lost its creative and innovator brand status. Not everyone is saying this, but we suspect that Apple’s brand will suffer greatly in the winter rollout of new products if they don’t come up with something new, spectacular even.  Is Tim Cook really something more than a good operator?  He is that – but Apple customers and investors want more to insure the future.

8)  Facebook and Twitter go public – check your calendar – both are healthy at year’s end!  Brand turnaround for Facebook is our Comeback Player of the Year. Twitter’s early success is not assured for the longer term – too early to tell, but Facebook has legs and is riding high for now.  Thank you, Mister Zuckerberg, for your vision.  After exploding out of the box and hitting a high of $65, Twitter fell back to Earth just a tiny bit – losing 13 percent as of last week before New Year’s.  Finding the economic models that is going to propel these two behemoths toward financial security seems to be the challenge – initially for Facebook they are fast figuring out the ad revenue model, and soaring at present. Twitter remains optimistic it will solve their revenue challenge in the near term.  From a brand point of view, both Facebook and Twitter have ranked high with users … and investors, too.  Our question for you:  Do you visit Facebook every day?  Do you tweet?  Let us know your answers.

9)  Microsoft buys Nokia.  You’d think this was a ‘marriage made in tech heaven’ several years ago, especially when Nokia controlled the world’s mobile market share.  But BrandTech News – and others – aren’t so sure this recently done marriage is going to last long.  Nokia had already accepted a ‘live-in’ relationship with Microsoft when they committed to Windows Phone several years ago, and many thought this merger was on fast forward, not on pause.  But it finally happened.  And the Finnish folks couldn’t be happier since they were on a death march much like BlackBerry – too little, too late.  But now with Microsoft’s Bank solidly behind the new couple (and publicly committed in splashy television ads), Nokia has another chance to again be a dominant player the mobile market.  The brand still has plenty of strength in Europe and elsewhere, but we think it’s been critically diminished in the US market – perhaps irretrievably.

10) BlackBerry’s ‘death watch.’  Here’s the latest: executives jump ship; huge losses; burnt through $800 million this past year.  We heard there were reports for hospice care until the new Foxconn deal in Indonesia put all talk of being ‘done’ on hold – temporarily, at least.  Indonesia is a stronghold for BlackBerry, but the brand is so tarnished that it would take a miracle to turn it around.  BrandTech News expects that BlackBerry will not be able to catch up with Android or iOS, and even Windows Phone in many markets.   They will remain – forever – a second or third tier player.  Not enough to survive. – RJL

Chicken soup ain’t good for the Apple soul

In Apple, Healthcare, Shopper Marketing on March 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm

by Robert Liljenwall

Samgyetang, a Korean chicken soup

Image via Wikipedia

Well, excitement filled the air again last week when I accidentally spilled chicken soup on my MacBook Pro while recovering from the flu.  A late 2009 model, my MacBook Pro was toast.  Gone.  Dead.  Logic board destroyed.  No matter how good chicken soup is for your soul, it’s absolutely not good for your laptop, Apple or not.

I had little time to decide – heading out for a 10-day trip back East in two days, it was now or never. And I soon discovered that sending my computer to the Apple hospital would take almost a week, and $1,240.  Soup cost me $1.99, laptop repair would be about the cost of a new computer.

Disgusted with my own stupidity and lack of dexterity, I looked around.  Surely in SteroidLand, there was a solution waiting for me.  Ah, ha, the MacBook Pro Air – sleeker, slicker, lighter, sexier, and actually, younger (a 2012 model vs. 2009).  And it only cost $9 more than my rehabbed three-year old sister.  After confirming that this was the right decision with two very helpful Apple customer service reps, it was a done deal.  And since I had recently put iCloud (via Lion) on my iPhone 4s, the migration was instantaneous:  I transferred my contact list, calendar, and over 20,000 emails instantly onto my new Air.

I was such a happy camper, and as I was walking out the store with my new Air under my arm, a young man was walking with me as we approached the front door.  I stopped and asked him:  “Did you buy anything?”  He answered, “No.”  “Well, you know, the alarm goes off if you don’t buy anything.”

For just a second I knew he thought I was serious.  He gave me a quizzical look, which quickly faded to relief and a broad grin as I was smiling, too.  “Naw, just kidding.”  He seemed relieved.  And I was relieved, too.  I was a very happy Apple camper, on steroids, again!

Let me see? A new iPhone 4s, a new Air in the past two months.  Yup, I’ve done my job of helping Apple this past quarter – along with millions of others around the Planet.  I just can’t leave an Apple store without buying something.    — RJL

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Covectra and the Socialization of Brand Protection

In brand-building, Healthcare, Shopper Marketing on June 11, 2010 at 9:26 pm
Some produce traceability makers use matrix ba...
Image via Wikipedia

by Jeff Sandgren

A Brand Integrity Nightmare

The thieves started by cutting a hole in the roof.  Then they rappelled down into the factory, disabled the alarms, and proceeded to load up a tractor trailer with an estimated $75 million worth of antipsychotics and other drugs, pallets and pallets of them, and drove clean away. No, this is not the plot of the next James Bond thriller; this is the true story from earlier this year of the daring heist from a major Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut.  As cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there have already been 10 major pharmaceutical thefts this year, valued at a total of $110 million, following 46 drug thefts valued at a total of $184 million last year, according to Dan Burges, director of intelligence at the U.S. division of FreightWatch International, a supply-chain security consultancy.

Then it gets worse, because the drugs don’t just disappear.  Sometimes they find their way back into the consumer goods supply chain, AFTER being cut with impurities to multiply their volume and street value. It’s a serious health threat to patients and consumers – and a brand integrity nightmare for the Brand Manager.  Consider these examples cited by Joshua  M. Sharfstein, M.D.,  Principal Deputy Commissioner Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in congressional testimony earlier this year:

  • In 2007 and 2008, contaminated heparin (a blood-thinning drug) from China was linked to deaths and a number of serious allergic-type reactions here at home.
  • Counterfeit Tamiflu was discovered during the novel H1N1 outbreak.
  • In 2007, Xenical capsules ordered over the Internet were found to be composed only of talc and starch.
  • In January 2010, counterfeit Alli was discovered, which did not contain the active ingredient but instead contained varying amounts another stimulant, which can lead to serious toxicity if used by certain people.

So why haven’t we been better able to prevent this?  In the past several years, there has been significant progress in “Track and Trace” solutions, which involve placing identifiers on manufactured goods, then using those identifiers to follow the merchandise as it moves through the supply chain and ultimately into the hands of consumers.  So why haven’t these solutions been deployed to protect consumers, and the brand reputations of the products supplied to them?

Track and Trace Issues

“Track and Trace has bad equity,” explained Yogendra Jain, CTO and co-founder of Covectra.  Part of it stems from a strong association in the industry’s collective mindset between Track and Trace solutions in general and the particular subset of those solutions involving Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).  RFID made a much heralded burst into the scene several years ago, with all the pundit hype of a Stephen Strasburg debut … minus the 14 strike-outs.  Or, depending on your definition, with the 14 strike-outs.  To be clear: there have been some exciting successes in RFID, and the ongoing development both technically and commercially will deliver many more in the years ahead; but the hype destined it for over-promising/under-delivering, before it even began, with an ROI that remains elusive for many applications.

Yet RFID is only a small slice of the solution set for Track and Trace.  According to Reik Read, Senior Analyst Supply Chain Technology for Robert W. Baird & Co., “There’s more gravitational interest in 2-D bar coding.”   What’s more, in this case, the focus is on consumer protection and brand integrity: about making sure that the authentic goods in their quality-controlled condition make it to the consumer with the authenticity and condition intact and therefore with the all-important Brand Promise equally uncompromised.  Very shortly, the FDA will issue a guidance establishing a standard for unique identification for prescription drug packages, which ultimately will help in identifying the whereabouts and authenticity of drug packages and distinguish them from counterfeits.  By October 2012, all manufacturers and repackagers of Pharmaceutical Drugs in the US have to have applied package level standardized numerical identifiers (SNIs) to their lines according to the standards put forth by the FDA.  Similar initiatives are underway in Europe, and are expected to be completed before the end of 2010.  So how could there be bad equity with such a noble product mission?

A New Approach

Before we deal with their answers to the Big Questions of brand integrity, here’s some background on Covectra itself.  A company in the midst of transition, Covectra has in fact just rebranded itself.  The company, formerly known as PhamoRX Security, is a provider of multi-layered brand protection solutions, competing with other vendors like Cognex and AlpVision.  Recognizing the value of such solutions for premium brands as well as for pharmaceuticals, Covectra’s solutions are built on a foundation of serialization track & trace, multiple taggant solutions, and what Jain describes as “a deep expertise in cloud computing, and making branded products ‘sticky’ (i.e. more interactively engaging)”.

But Covectra’s approach mirrors its view of the problem, a broad solution set that engages manufacturers, distributors, pharmacists, prescribers, law enforcement and, ultimately, patients – an end-to-end brand protection ecosystem.  But a solution platform that encompasses so many users has, of necessity, a big job in education ahead of it.  “It’s a huge learning curve,” says Yogendra Jain, and the value chain is difficult to demonstrate, much less ensure.  Pending regulatory requirements certainly contribute to the value proposition.  So how do you create the impetus to overcome the learning curve?  Covectra sees a even more powerful driver in a very different zone: increasing brand loyalty.  “We have to START with brand loyalty,” says Jain. “Putting track & trace first is like putting the cart before the horse.”

Consider, for example, pharmaceuticals with expiring patents. Pharma Brand Managers have a large stake in keeping patients on the branded product.  Adherence is another value driver, both for the patient (more consistent dosage and treatment) and for the Brand and Retailer (less lost consumption equals higher sales).  Covectra’s solutions, based on serial track & trace, combined with an easy consumer-facing portal for web and mobile access, seek to “offer a way for the Pharma Brand Manager to improve dialogue with consumers and stakeholders”, according to Jain.

Better Communication

One way to improve the dialogue is to help the consumers authenticate products themselves.  Imagine a concerned mother wanting to make completely sure about the medicine she is picking up for her child.  Covectra’s simple Brand Loyalty Integrity Services (BLIS) smart-phone application lets her snap a picture of the 2D barcode, upload, and instantly confirm that the product in her hands is the authentic one that left the warehouse intended for the retail store where she is now standing.  Better still, with that authentication might come any manner of additional brand-loyalty-building communications from the Brand Manager: offers for discounts, website links for personal support, or healthcare tips.  By triggering off the simple act of consumer authentication, a direct communication link will have been formed between the individual consumer and the Brand.

Covectra is working to enable a day when a heist like that from Eli Lilly, slyly trying to insinuate itself back into the supply chain, has to run the gauntlet of a much broader set of stakeholders – up to and including a smartphone-savvy network of concerned patients and caregivers – who are continuously monitoring authenticity, alerting Brands at the first sign of infraction, and hopefully giving law enforcement better information to help them clamp down on the counterfeiters and thieves.

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Healthcare Reform, as Pharma sees it

In Healthcare, Shopper Marketing on May 12, 2010 at 10:56 pm
The western front of the United States Capitol...
Image via Wikipedia

Relax, it’s just a little pinprick …
by Jeff Sandgren

An esteemed panel of pharmacy industry experts, including Matthew Hudes (Principal, Deloitte’s Life Sciences), John Engle (Managing Partner, Engel& Novitt, a ‘science-based law firm’), and Mike Mawby (Chief Government Affairs Officer, Novo Nordisk) recently convened at the annual INTERPHEX gathering to consider the future of Pharma after the tumultuous passage of Healthcare Reform.

All panelists felt that the package was, on the whole, good for the American public, with each panelist ranking it as a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.  All agreed that it was definitely better than doing nothing, “an unsustainable course … you can’t spend 100% of GDP on healthcare, and that’s where we were headed.”

The biggest plus, they felt, was enabling 30 million previously uninsured Americans access to health insurance.  Doing that took money, and the Pharma industry famously pitched in a commitment of $80 billion dollars over the next several years to help make that happen.  That sounds like a lot of money to average folks like you and me.  So how did the executive panelists feel about such a steep price tag?  The consensus of the panel, and certainly the general buzz at the show, was that the industry had “negotiated well”.    Specifically, the self-congratulation centered on three provisions: 1) no price controls explicit in the legislation; 2) no re-importation of drugs; and 3) a rough road for “biosimilars”. Biotech drugs are produced by biological rather than purely chemical processes.  For example, think about the concern this past winter as we waited for anti-flu vaccines being produced through some mysterious process involving chicken eggs.  For these, the term “generic” doesn’t apply, any more than it would to say that a human twin was the “generic” version of its sibling.  Instead, they speak of “biosimilarity”, and this delicate distinction is the reason that we see so many “chemical” drugs with cheaper equivalents, and so few “biological” drugs with the same. The new legislation, according to Engle, makes the approval process no easier – and arguably much harder—bad news for those hoping for lower costs in the short term on medicines for diseases like multiple sclerosis.

“Patent provisions for Biotech are unlike any other industry,” stated Engle, referring to a provision that requires nine months lead time after disturbingly full disclosure, “you essentially have to turn over your trade secrets to your worst enemy.  It’s a procedural bridge to nowhere.”

“Biosimilars were the big missed opportunity,” Novo’s Mawby noted. “Companies don’t innovate without competition.”

“At least we didn’t come across like the insurance industry,” observed Mawby, “next to them we looked like the good guys.”

Healthcare is a 2.6 trillion dollar industry, noted Deloitte’s Hudes, but Pharma is only 5 – 10% of that.  “Still, there are big numbers at stake. $14 billion is at risk by 2013, and another $7 billion 2 years after that.”

The volume will be going up, panelists noted, with 30 million more on board, the “donut hole” of Medicare closing, and lifestyle disorders like diabetes soaring.  It’s time for the industry to focus on ways to reduce costs without endangering safety and efficacy – something that’s never been a real priority in the past.

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PixelOptics launches Electronic Eyewear

In Healthcare on May 12, 2010 at 10:44 pm
A bifocal corrective eyeglasses lens
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Changing your focus in the blink of an eye

by Jeff Sandgren

Auto-focus.  We expect our cameras to do it, so why not our eyeglasses?  At this year’s Vision Expo a press conference packed in hundreds of journalists, analysts and admirers to witness an historic First in prescription eyewear.  Over ten years of research and development, culminated by PixelOptics and it’s emPower!™ partners, was right before our eyes.  More correctly, it was right before the eyes of CEO Ron Blum, O.D., as he stood at the podium, wearing the world’s first pair of electronic prescription eyewear.  Or, as strategic partner Bernard Pedoussaut of Aspex Eyewear Group described it, “the iPod of eyewear”.

The first thing we noticed was that this very special pair of eyeglasses, a prototype for the line that is slated to become commercially available in a regional launch late this year, didn’t look special at all, sporting a sleek, normal-sized frame – precisely what the designers had in mind.  But first let’s focus on the specs that made the spectacles especially interesting.  Like normal progressive bifocals, the glasses had one prescription for the main area of the lens, and a second prescription for the smaller inner area where one looks to read or examine something close.  But unlike normal bifocals, the magnification of this inner zone actually increased at the whim of the wearer.

These glasses were designed for presbyopia, a condition that affects many adults starting at around age 45 and results in the inability to properly focus the eyes at close-up and mid-range distances. For presbyopes, the closer the object you want to see, the more magnification you require.  With traditional bifocals, the solution is less than clear.  A prescription that focuses well in mid-range (14 inches to 7 feet) is not strong enough for really close objects; while an inner lens suitable for really close objects is too strong for the mid-range.  Often these patients face an issue known as “peripheral swim”.  Many adapt to this, but it is always a compromise – one which worsens as patients age. In any case this is problematic, says Dr. Blum, because “60% of the time or more, people don’t do close-work and don’t need the added (lens power)”. Dealing with this variation of focus in a small space is what lens companies have been doing for years, in lens products called “progressive addition” lenses. Globally approximately 50 million pairs of them are sold each year – 23 million pairs in the USA alone.

The electronic eyewear, with the brand name emPower!™, solves this problem by electronically switching up the magnification when needed, and returning it to lesser magnification when not needed.  This amazing feat is accomplished by a composite lens that combines traditional ‘static’ lens elements with ‘electro-active’ elements that changes the index of refraction (and therefore, the degree of magnification) at a speed faster than the blink of a human eye.  Knowing our readers would want something more specific, BrandTech News checked out some patents and found that “…the term ‘electro-active lens’ refers to a lens whose optical properties may be changed or modified with the application of electricity. Of particular interest are electro-active lenses formed from liquid crystal lens elements…”  Further description references use of either nematic or cholesteric liquid crystal components, used in conjunction with an electrical contact layer of Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) a clear conductive surface also employed in such technologies as electronic ink.

The control is ingeniously implemented in three modes, all of which are inconspicuously activated by the wearer with a simple swipe or tap on the arm of the eyeglass frame.  The frame is equipped with tiny batteries that can power the transitions for days at a time, depending on frequency of use, and ‘hibernate’ when the glasses are taken off and laid upside-down, to conserve power.  Even more ingenious is the use of a micro-accelerometer, a tiny sensor that detects when the wearer tilts their head forward (as one usually does when looking at something up close) to automatically boost the power, then switches it back off when the wearer looks up again, restoring the glasses to the functionality of normal progressive bifocals.  Alternatively, the operational mode can be switched to steady-on or off by different finger-swipes on the frame.

Larry Rodriguez, SVP Global Marketing and Sales shared with me a conversation he had with Dr. Blum over 10 years ago. “Dr. Blum caught me in the hallway one day, excited as usual, and asked me a question I will never forget: what if we could take unwanted power out of the lens until the patient needed it, eliminating so much of the problem caused with progressive addition lenses?” Larry’s answer was “Wow, that would be great, but how is that possible?”  That is the problem that PixelOptics has apparently solved with emPower.

Dr. Blum describes the company as “a composite lens company and really an engine of innovation that none of us ever expected”.  In 2005 PixelOptics licensed the intellectual property, trade secrets, and know-how exclusively and globally from e-Vision LLC, who had begun the development of electronic eyeglasses in the late 1990’s.  From there they moved ahead with development partners from around the world.  They claim to have amassed a portfolio of over 300 issued patents and patent applications.  PixelOptics has received funding from Panasonic and some top-tier VC sources, and $3.5 million from the Defense Department for “SuperVision” technology development (a “wider clear vision” solution).

PixelOptics has assembled an impressive team of strategic partners, a complementary set of best-in-class providers including: Aspex Eyewear, a leader in innovative hi-tech frame design; Panasonic Shikoku Electronics, a division focused on healthcare solutions that “improve the life of the world’s aging population”; Shamir Optical, providing the software for ‘free-forming’ the composite lens (the lens-shaping that sets the prescription); and  Transitions Optical, who will be helping combine PixelOptics electro-active technology with their automatic-shading feature.  The emphasis in these partnerships, explained Rodriguez, is to “leverage the existing commercialization chain in the industry, rather than try to reinvent it.  We can add more value by focusing our energy on the technology.  Working with these best-in-class partners lets us accelerate the product to the market so that consumers can extract the full benefits.”

Regarding pricing, which seems to pop into everyone’s mind when we tell them about this amazing new eyewear, Larry states that pricing will be up to the individual eye care provider, but that they expect it to be on a par with other premium progressive lens products.

After the press conference, we made sure to stop by the PixelOptics booth to check it out for ourselves.  The effect is indeed remarkable.  Seeing was believing.  Our final thought is that this – like QD Vision’s first product – is just the tip of an iceberg.  Will PixelOptics partner with Apple or some other game-changer to deliver hands-free mobile computing by integrating it into eyewear, with voice, image, and gesture recognition?  We find this electronic eyewear loaded with technological significance, not just because of the very real problem it addresses, but because it, and all the aviation and military eyewear-based solutions that already provide functionality but lack the consumer elegance of emPower, may be heralds of a not too distant future.

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