MassChallenge

Case Study

Finding a Better Treatment for Cataracts: Adaptilens Founder’s  20+ Year Journey to $17.5 Million Series A Funding

Half of Americans develop cataracts by the age of 75. Cataracts is a general clouding of one’s vision, due to an aging lens. Symptoms may include faded colors, blurry or double vision, halos around light, trouble with bright lights, and difficulty seeing at night.  

The National Eye Institute expects the number of Americans with cataracts to double by 2050, from 24 million to approximately 50 million. 

There is a procedure to alleviate the problem. “Cataract surgery is a beautiful, elegant surgery to perform,” Dr. Liane Clamen, Founder and CEO of Adaptilens, explained. “The disappointing part, that I learned in residency, is that we remove the cataract and implant an artificial lens with one power. We typically correct patients for distance vision and leave them dependent on glasses for near and intermediate vision for the rest of their lives. So even as a young ophthalmologist, I thought: we’re not really solving the whole problem here.” 

This realization came to Dr. Clamen almost twenty-five years ago. Developing cutting-edge medical technology is never a sprint, it’s always a marathon. 

Adaptilens is developing an intraocular lens that imitates the young, healthy human lens so that patients will have near, intermediate, and distance vision without eyeglasses or contact lenses. The young lens is soft and flexible, allowing the muscles of accommodation inside the eye to change the shape, and thus the power, of the lens. As Dr. Clamen explained, “Young people with healthy eyes can zoom in to focus on a book and zoom out to focus on far-away trees because their lenses change power, allowing their eyes to have multiple different powers.”

In April 2024, Adaptilens, a pre-clinical company dedicated to transforming the standard of care for cataract surgery, announced the closing of a Series A financing round of $17.5 million.  

How It All Began 

Before turning to medicine, Dr. Clamen first completed an undergraduate degree in English at Harvard University, which instilled a passion for writing and research.  

In the late 1990s, Dr. Clamen authored a chapter on the history of intraocular lenses (IOLs), the artificial lenses used to replace cataracts. The first intraocular lens implant dates back to only the 1940s. Through meticulous research on every lens that had ever been on the market, Dr. Clamen identified a significant gap: no existing lenses imitated the properties of a young, healthy lens. 

“Even 20 years ago,” Dr. Clamen said. “I thought, let’s just imitate nature.” 

She set a goal to develop a lens that mimics the natural accommodation of the eye. This idea incubated for many years, beginning around 2002. The challenge lay in the fact that suitable material to replicate nature’s function did not exist. 

Patents and Contributions 

In pursuit of this vision, Dr. Clamen applied for a patent for an accommodating intraocular lens in 2011. Despite many rejections, perseverance paid off when the Patent Office granted the patent in 2019. This innovative lens, which Dr. Clamen termed biomimetic, imitates the natural accommodation of the human eye. Dr. Clamen has also received patents for other inventions, including one that was successfully licensed. 

Founding of Adaptilens 

Confident that this breakthrough could benefit many people, Dr. Clamen decided to go all in. In 2019, she filed a certificate of formation and founded Adaptilens, a company dedicated to advancing the development and distribution of this revolutionary intraocular lens. 

In the early days, Dr. Clamen bootstrapped the company, paying for the patents herself and combing through the medical network to find someone to develop a material with the required optical and mechanical properties. “We were actually interviewing a lot of professors of polymer chemistry in the Boston area,” Dr. Clamen said, “when Thomas Neenan, a polymer chemist and serial entrepreneur, introduced me to this brilliant polymer chemist and professor at Duke University, Matt Becker.” In February 2020, Dr. Clamen signed a sponsored research agreement with Professor Becker to develop the novel material.  

On the business side, Dr. Clamen attended a day-long workshop at the now defunct Capital Network where she was introduced to MassChallenge, the nonprofit startup accelerator.  

The Impact of MassChallenge 

Upon understanding more about how MassChallenge supports early-stage founders, and drives innovation in health technology ecosystems, Dr. Clamen applied in the winter of 2020, an application year that saw over 1,000 applications for roughly 100 spots.  

“So I was paying for this polymer to be developed, the patents, everything,” said. Dr. Clamen, “and I thought I better bring in some money to this company.”  

She began reaching out to Angel investors, which was proving time-consuming and slow-moving, when the MassChallenge cohort was announced. Upon seeing Adaptilens among the cohort, Pillar VC and Accanto Partners reached out directly to Dr. Clamen. Within a few months, Pillar and Accanto invested in Adaptilens’s $1.6 million seed round.  

“MassChallenge was instrumental to Adaptilens receiving that funding. Being accepted into the program gave us an immediate stamp of approval and validation,” Dr. Clamen said.  

In addition, Dr. Clamen benefitted from the camaraderie and focus of the medical devices micro-group Adaptilens was placed in, internally referred to as “wolfpacks.”

“The structure of the MassChallenge was fantastic,” said Dr. Clamen. “I learned so much, not just from the leader of my wolfpack, but from my peers that  were a little farther along. They taught me a lot about the FDA regulatory process and about fundraising.” 

The Future of Adaptilens 

The next major milestone for Adaptilens is the first in-human trial, when their lenses will be implanted in living human eyes. This trial is projected to be about a year and a half away, and the team is thrilled. This progress is largely attributed to the strong foundation provided by the MassChallenge, which enabled Adaptilens to learn how to build a company and secure the necessary funding. This support was instrumental in attracting a $17.5 million raise, sufficient to carry the company through the first in-human trials and prepare for the final pivotal clinical trial. Dr. Clamen believes the Adaptilens IOL will improve the quality of life of millions of people. “I look forward to having our game-changing lenses implanted in my eyes when I need cataract surgery,” Dr. Clamen said.

About Dr. Liane Clamen 

Dr. Liane Clamen is an ophthalmologist who earned her BA and MD at Harvard and completed her training at The Harvard Ophthalmology Residency Program at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear. She is the inventor of the Adaptilens Accommodating IOL, a punctal plug drug delivery system, and an anterior capsulotomy device. 

About Adaptilens 

Adaptilens is developing an Accommodating IOL that works with the patient’s eye muscles to give them a more youthful quality of vision at all distances. 

Their team of surgeons, industry experts, scientists, and engineers are working with Duke University’s Hugo L. Blomquist Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Material Science, Matt Becker. The Becker Lab has developed novel polymers that will allow the Adaptilens IOL to function like the natural human lens.