THE ageing population and a global diabetes epidemic are fuelling demand for eye care technology designed and developed in Fife.

“Eye disease is increasing globally and a lot of this is age related,” explained Robert Kennedy, chief executive of retinal imaging specialist, Optos. “Diabetes is also growing at a huge rate across many countries. One of the complications of diabetes is something called diabetic retinopathy (caused by damage to the blood vessels at the back of the eye) and we’re seeing increasing prevalence of that disease across the world.”

The company, which has more than doubled revenues over the last decade to $212 million last year, employs around 500 people globally. It designs and develops all its products at its base in Dunfermline, where about 100 of its 230 staff work on research and development, alongside clinical, quality and regulatory teams.

“Out of here, we’re producing world-leading technology,” Kennedy said. “We’ve spent about $14m a year investing in research and development and through that we’re expanding our range of devices on the market.”

Since it was set up in 1992 by founder Douglas Anderson – whose son lost his sight in one eye because of a detached retina – Optos has transformed the detection of eye disease with its flagship technology.

“It took about seven years to develop our first device, which could capture a 200 degree image,” Kennedy explained. “This equates to about 80% of the retina, compared to about 15% for standard imaging equipment.

“Essentially, we lead the world in what is called ultra-widefield imaging. Traditional devices just capture the central part of the eye. What we’ve done is expand that image. We’ve shown in something like 800 clinical papers across more than 100 diseases, that a lot of diseases are first seen in the periphery of the eye, outside of where normal imaging would see it.

“One of our papers showed that our devices caught 66% more pathologies than conventional imaging devices, so we’ve basically shown why the periphery of the eye is important when it comes to patient care.”

In the last ten years, Optos has quadrupled the number of devices it has in the market globally from about 4,000 to 16,000. Ninety eight per cent of these are outside the UK.

This March, the company will launch an addition to its flagship technology called optical coherence tomography (OCT), which uses light waves to take cross-section pictures of a patient’s retina.

“On our latest device, we’re the first to allow an OCT scan to take place anywhere on the retina,” Kennedy explained. “That’s been developed here in Scotland and it allows doctors to see different layers, a bit like a CT scan, across the retina, whereas traditional devices typically only look at the central area. OCT scans are really important for many eye diseases as they allow you to see the structure of the retina and, for example, identify fluid build-up which, if left untreated, can damage vision.”

These new product offerings will help drive the company’s growth.

“We are also looking to new segments like primary care,” Kennedy added. “Typically a patient will see their GP before going to an eye specialist. So how can we have an integrated offering that’s going to support patients though their care journey? For example, the NHS has got a very good screening programme for diabetes, and we want to use our technology to be part of that.”

The vision for Optos is to be the global leader in eyecare imaging solutions and to continue growing.

“We’ve been growing on average seven to eight per cent a year for the last ten years and the market’s been growing at three per cent a year,” Kennedy said. “We really want to continue to try and do that and our target is to continue to grow ahead of the market.”

The US is its biggest market, followed by Japan and China. Nikon, the Japanese multinational and optical technology specialist, acquired Optos in 2015 and has been a key distribution partner in the Asian markets.

“Our staff numbers are up about 25% since the acquisition, so Nikon are very committed, and we work very closely with them on product development,” Kennedy said.

The company still sees growth in Asia – and also wants to continue growing its position in Europe, which accounts for about 15% of sales.

On Brexit, he added: “For everyone, the uncertainty is not ideal. But for us, we’ve got to keep growing and developing. Europe is always going to be an important market for us. Once the path becomes clearer, we’ll just respond accordingly.”

Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are also key growth markets as the healthcare systems in those countries become more developed.

Kennedy originally joined Optos as company secretary in 2011, later becoming chief financial officer and then chief executive in 2016.

Before joining the business, he spent four years at the University of Dundee as finance director and was also group finance director for the filtration division of a Dutch PLC. Other roles included a spell in management consultancy with professional services firm PwC.

After a degree in economics from the University of Sheffield, he qualified as an accountant with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants while working at construction group Balfour Beatty. He also has an MBA from Manchester Business School.

He has worked across a range of sectors, but says manufacturing is his passion.

“It’s great to come to work for a business that designs, develops, manufactures and sells its own products,” Kennedy said. “Optos does that – but also what we design and develop can help save sight and save lives, and help our doctors to help their patients.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I enjoy going to Japan. The culture is very different and great to experience. Everyone is also very polite, and I get to try some interesting food. I also enjoy Boston, it’s a great city with lots to see and do whether for work or pleasure.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I grew up in a town where manufacturing was an integral part of the local economy. This is why I’ve always been attracted to working in an environment where you create products and services to be sold across the world.

What was your biggest break in business?

My initial break in business was in my first role post-qualification when I came to Scotland. I joined a fast-growing business, giving me lots of opportunities at a relatively young age. My biggest break was joining and becoming CFO of Optos during a time of change where the business was repositioning itself for long-term growth. This gave me experience at board level within a listed environment delivering our ambitious growth plans and being acquired by Nikon.

What was your worst moment in business?

I don’t have a specific moment. Wherever I have worked there are always challenges. Dealing with and learning from these experiences has been an important part of my development.

Who do you most admire and why?

It is difficult to choose one individual as there are several people I admire across many different areas. They do however all tend to share the same trait of perseverance against the odds.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I am currently reading Iain Rankin’s new (old) book and listening to a range of music including Geowulf, Bombay Bicycle Club and the National.