In Singapore, 65% of children become nearsighted by the age of 11, making it the country with the highest rate of myopia in the world. The Singapore Ministry of Health projects that 80% to 90% of Singaporean adults will be shortsighted by 2050, while 15% to 20% will develop high myopia, a serious level of nearsightedness that could lead to blindness if left untreated.
Up to 90% of high myopia cases could be prevented if there is early intervention, according to research by the Ministry of Health. Plano, an eye health tech startup that helps parents monitor and limit children’s screen time via a mobile application, has set out to be part of that solution.
Mohamed Dirani, the founder and managing director of Plano, has spent years researching the effects of nearsightedness. In 2006, he earned his PhD by conducting the world’s largest study on the genetic and environmental risk factors of myopia among twins. Since then, Dirani has continued his research in ocular epidemiology. As he explored this field, he became aware of his dependence on screens for his work—a condition that strained his own eyes.
“One of the motivations to start Plano stemmed from my personal frustration of spending too much time on the screens of my computer, phone, and tablet. I came to realize that these devices were being used by my nieces and nephews who were two to four years old,” Dirani told KrASIA.
He wanted to address a knowledge gap in eye care. “When people talk about myopia, they think throwing on a pair of glasses will solve the problem. But they don’t realize that one in five people will develop high myopia, which puts them at risk of irreversible vision damage,” he explained.
In 2017, Dirani founded Plano and released a parental control application that monitors children’s device usage. The app detects the distance between a user’s face and their phone’s screen, issues reminders to children to wear glasses, and locks phones on the command of parents.
Plano’s app runs in the background and collects user behavior data in real-time, prompting concerns of data and personal privacy. But Dirani emphasized that the application complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a data privacy law that came into effect in 2018.
“We’re quite conscious about data privacy. Ethics are very important to us,” he said, adding that the application is not a medical device, so it is exempted from regulatory approval.
“The application is intended to help educate people and mitigate risk factors of myopia through its functions. If children are wearing spectacles but they hold the screen too close to their faces, their glasses might need to be updated, as their myopia has progressed. It [the app] is not just about fostering behavior changes, it’s about nudging people into taking care of their eyes,” he added.
Plano’s application is currently available in Google Play, the Apple App Store, and Huawei’s AppGallery. It costs SGD 2.98 (USD 2) per month or SGD 29.98 (USD 22) for an annual subscription.
Apart from subscription fees from users, Plano monetizes its app by partnering with businesses and eye health care centers. The app has a reward system for children to earn points by implementing consistent behavior for eye care. Points can be traded for things like a ticket to the zoo or three hours of playtime at a play center. Parents can also use Plano to schedule eye examinations for their children.
Plano’s application is available in ten countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Italy, Singapore, the US, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Besides the application, the startup draws revenue from advertising, research, and market analytics.
The firm is currently planning its expansion to China. “In the last six months, we’ve appointed a China lead, who has built a team of about 15 people,” Dirani said.
Last August, Chinese authorities limited minors’ game-play time to a maximum of three hours per week, partly in response to the rising cases of myopia among young schoolchildren. Dirani believes that these restrictions help raise public awareness of ocular health, adding that Plano intends to operate in China. To that end, the firm is in talks with potential investors to raise more capital to fuel its growth.