Founded in 2017 and with the support of Singapore National Eye Centre, Singapore Eye Research Institute and National Health Innovation Centre, Plano launched the world’s first science-based parental control application, planoApp, with a vision to “Keep all eyes healthy in our digitised world”.

Plano was founded by Dr. Mo Dirani. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Duke-NUS Medical School, and Honorary Principal Investigator at the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI) and the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA). After his years of research on Myopia, Mo decided to launch Plano. He believes that this ecosystem is the answer to keeping all eyes healthy in this digital world. He spoke to Komal Pattanayak of VCBay.

Komal: Please tell us something about yourself and your company Plano.

Mo Dirani: I’m Australian born, two immigrant parents from Lebanon. I’m one of 12 kids and. I was born and raised in Sydney to my childhood years and then went over to Melbourne as a young teenager to study at the University of Melbourne. I got my PhD there, from the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Ophthalmology. So basically a PhD in research centred around the epidemiology of myopia. That was a little while ago. I’m not going to tell you how long ago, because that’ll give away my age. But nonetheless, I graduated there at the young age of 26.

I developed quite a competitive research career and I still hold an adjunct position as an associate professor at Duke and NUS and an honorary position at Singapore Eye Research Institute, Australia. I made a major pivot there, trying to understand how we can best translate our research work into real-life solutions.

And that was the big motivation of actually becoming more engaged and aware and conscious about thinking beyond academia or research that’s heavily driven on a manuscript, publications, grants, presentation, students, supervision and so forth.

Three or so years ago, I was able to sort of tap into my connections here in Singapore, particularly at the eye centre. I evolved this concept of Plano that I had in my mind at their incubator. I wanted to understand how we can use innovative ways and solutions, how we can tackle the big global problem of myopia or short-sightedness, which is projected to affect about 5 billion people, half the world’s population by 2050. Currently, it’s close to 3 billion people.

I thought about how we can address myopia, a big global problem. And this is where the concept of Plano was developed, falling under the category of a health technology company. It is in essence, trying to help people achieve their best vision and eye health through education and science-based technological solutions. We can talk a bit more about the application that’s available in 10 countries and as being sort of trusted by almost half a million families around the world. So that’s quite nice. And the second tech solution is that of a platform, a very smart platform that enables people to make eye appointments and attend appointments in an efficient, effective and impactful manner. This is a proven model that’s been responsible for getting thousands of people into eye care in Singapore alone.

Komal: You founded Plano right after your MBA. Was the idea of Plano there at the back of your mind before, or did you get inspired to build your own company after completing your MBA?

Mo Dirani: I don’t think there was any structure to it or expectation from undergoing an MBA. In the sense that once I’m done, I will then have a crystallized idea of a venture. It was part of the journey. Five or six years after my PhD, there were clear frustrations as a competitive researcher. I’m only speaking for myself here. I didn’t feel like I was contributing to society, at the level that I wanted to contribute.

Neither was directly impacting people’s lives in a positive way using my ability to critically think or innovate. I knew I had to bridge the gap between academia and the rest of the world, particularly the eye industry.

And the second thing I knew I had to do was I had to speak to people outside of my academic circle. Because it’s important to chain different perspectives on particularly solution-based approaches. So, they’re the two things that I knew I had to do and I needed real-life experience in the world of business.

I did actually go out and develop a couple of small ventures on a very small scale. Just to get that real-life experience from conception all the way to consumption. And then I did the MBA while I was working on a full-time job, heading a department in Australia. There was a team of about 50 to 70 people. It’s quite an undertaking and I was running marathons at the same time. But that MBA really gave me the correct jargon, put the structure to some of the chaos in my mind as to how I was thinking about things.

It also powered me to become a little more structured and active in finding those solutions. I would rather take the late Steve Jobs approach in thinking, you know, it’s dots join. And sometimes some people can see and sometimes they don’t, but for me, I think the whole journey from doing a PhD all the way to this interview, it has started to make sense.

Komal: Why did you launch Plano in Singapore and not in Australia?

Mo Dirani: Plano is headquartered here as a Singapore based company and it’s been nurtured here. The team is here. My connection here to Singapore was a year or so after my PhD, I actually did a postdoc here at the National University of Singapore. It was a big national study on eye disease in the pediatric population of those kids aged 6 to 72 months.

I was in charge of conducting that study here in Singapore. And many years later, I had no idea what the significance of me in Singapore was, but it certainly made sense many years later when the penny dropped,

Komal: What is the reason behind the high rate of the Myopic population of Singapore?

Mo Dirani: It’s not just an Asian disease, but in a nutshell, myopia is a complex condition. It has both genetic risk factors as well as environmental risk factors. And I think the latter, factors cannot be underestimated and they play a major part in the development and progression of myopia.

And then with the digitized world today, we’ve got an excess of 20 population-based studies showing the link between devices and myopia. It’s not that the devices are just substituting the books, it’s in addition to a lot of the time. The amount of time our children, even adults spend looking at near material is absolutely mind-blowing. It’s no surprise to me that our two-year-olds are spending up to two hours a day on devices, six months olds, again, already about 45 to 60 minutes of screen exposure. It’s that extra babysitter when you’re in the pram and they’ve got iPad holders in prams now, so children can be looking at something and distracted. But in the meantime, we just gotta make sure it’s not at the expense of one’s health, particularly their eyesight.

So, one of these risk factors is near work activity. Second is the benefit of being outdoors. Outdoor activity up to about two hours a day is shown to be protective for myopia.

In Singapore and urbanized regions of Asia, it’s quite high. If you correlate it with their studying habits and the emphasis on academia, and you also think about the amount of outdoor spent, it may explain the essence of it. Even in the U.S. and Australia, it’s doubled in the last 20 years.

Now in this digital world, with the adoption of screens or the excessive use of screens, the lack of outdoor play, there’s an enormous amount of sedentary behaviour. Eyes are affected in the process. In the unfortunate circumstances of COVID over the last 12 to 18 months, we have the laptop, another iPad that’s sitting there. We also have the phone that’s there. Our mates are texting us on WhatsApp. We’re sending off the emails, zooming. Yeah. The intensity of screens, the fixation on screens and the longevity, or the excessive use of screens, it doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to understand the consequences of this.

And this is when the penny dropped several years ago and it’s more and more emphasized now that something is going to go wrong. This is why we’re here to try and address this problem of myopia with one of its main risk factors of excessive screen time.

And don’t get me wrong, technology’s great. Remember one of our components of the company is actually using technology. So, it’s like flipping the problem into the solution. It’s quite counter-intuitive from a distance, but you get to understand that we’re actually pro-technology. Technology is not the problem, but it’s rather the relationship with developing new technology.

Komal: What is the Plano technology? How do you ensure that children don’t exceed the screen timing?

Mo Dirani: It goes beyond just the screen time. The first pillar of Plano is the education awareness that we’re communicating with different stakeholders, namely teachers, parents, government entities and practitioners. Then the application is a technology that works in the background of devices, phones and tablets and it has real-time alerts to ensure that they sit in the correct posture, that they’re wearing their spectacles.

It also empowers them to adopt good behaviours as they are rewarded with points that then bring them to our e-commerce element that gets them outdoors. We partner with a whole heap of vendors that offer outdoor products and services. The application is quite non-intrusive, it’s non-disruptive and it’s supposed to be a friend of the family, rather than a police app.

Komal:  Have you gotten any feedback from the kids that this technology is enjoyable for them rather than annoying?

Mo Dirani: Most of it has been in our favour in the way of adoption and use of it because it’s not annoying and we give the kids options. Kids are incredibly smart and tech-savvy.

We’ve got parental control functionality, so parents can remotely lock their child’s phone. They can block apps. They can enforce the time schedule and a bit more where there’s no device time at dinner. Then you can understand these kids get a bit annoyed and some of them go as far as expressing it on your app review. And that’s fine too. We welcome that sort of stuff because, with any technology, irrespective of the application, it’s very much about continuous product improvement. We get all sorts of feedback and we do our best to try and address them.

Komal: You have also a patented one of your products. Can you tell us about that?

Mo Dirani: The Patent was actually the application itself. Cause you must understand that it’s quite a complex application in its development. It’s got very sophisticated functionality such as your face to screen integration, getting your eyes checked and triggers to know whether a child needs an eye check or not based on their behaviour on the device, the rewards and points system. There are multiple functionalities. The patent has been awarded in Singapore. More recently, it was awarded in Japan. These are very welcoming pieces of news because it protects your IP, and demonstrates high value in your software. And software is particularly difficult to patent. It’s been a long journey, but I think it’s certainly a worthy one.

Komal: What’s the competitive landscape like? Are there other healthtech startups that have similar products and services like yours?

Mo Dirani: I think in the space of eyes and our ecosystem, we very much lead the market in the world. If you refer to the application in isolation, particularly with the parental control elements, such as tracking the location of your child, remotely locking devices, app blocking, of course, there’s some competition, but we remain very differentiated because we’re, science-based, having eye health elements. Plano is trying to address the global issue of myopia and under-utilization of eyecare so we’re not a bunch of techies coming in with that quick fix tech app that goes viral. But rather, we’re a bunch of techies and scientists coming together to understand what part of this myopia management are we addressing? I think we’re addressing education, telling people what the solution is in the way of behaviour change, and then providing them with the tech solutions. Basically, how can we change their behaviour and how can we get them in front of eye care professionals?

From an eye perspective, they’re also a bit forward. We’ve got partnerships with the health promotion board where we presented on the human eye and myopia and some of the things you could do to change that. We’ve presented to over a hundred thousand children in Singapore across almost a hundred schools. It’s beautiful to have that support from the health promotion board and the ministry of education.

Komal: Is the Singapore government taking enough measures to keep the eye health of the population in check?

Mo Dirani: We are very fortunate in Singapore for two reasons. Number one is, the government is very supportive of innovative solutions entrepreneurship and the startup industry in general. There are lots of granting bodies, a lot of supportive entities that the Singapore government has put in place to support the growth of startups.

Komal: You are currently present in 10 locations. Are you planning to expand further in the coming years?

Mo Dirani: The full value proposition will go off to China, but you know, we’re currently in the US, Australia, New Zealand, India, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and so forth. The current focus is to help China to solve this big problem of myopia, where the government has attributed it to excessive screen time to about 500 million cases of vision loss in their country.

Komal: What advice would you give to everyone on how we can protect our eyes or decrease our eye power in general?

Other places will move in that direction as well. India is leading the research to show the correlation between screen time and myopia. One of the first population-based studies came out of India.

Mo Dirani: I just think being conscientious about regular health checks is important and seek advice from your doctors and don’t neglect your eyes.

Your eyes are part of your brain and don’t take them for granted. There could be a whole heap of pathological changes taking place in the way of technology or screens and so forth. I think these are tools created by humans and it’s up to us as conscious people to use them for the tools they are and ensure that they don’t make tools out of you. Please use them for the tools they are and get outside, get outdoors, get into nature.

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