Toku, founded by Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland scientist Associate Professor Ehsan Vaghefi, is driven by a deeply personal mission. Ehsan’s father lost his vision to glaucoma, a disease that could have been treated, sparking Ehsan’s determination to prevent such needless suffering. Initially known as Toku Eyes, the company has since broadened its focus from ocular health to addressing wide-ranging cardiovascular risks. Utilising advanced AI technology, Toku’s CLAiR platform scans the eye to predict not only blindness but also the likelihood of other cardiovascular diseases and events like strokes and heart attacks. It is currently used in hundreds of locations around the world.

The eye is commonly known as the window to the soul, but what is less know is that it also serves as a unique window into overall health. Routine eye examinations offer invaluable insights, allowing for the early detection of potentially life-threatening conditions. By harnessing this inherent accessibility, Toku seeks to provide affordable preventive healthcare, ensuring that individuals globally and across all socioeconomic backgrounds have access to timely interventions.

Ehsan strongly emphasises the preventability of heart attacks through timely interventions. The challenge lies in identifying at-risk individuals, with financial constraints being the main issue. “There is enough intervention out there – medication, minimally invasive procedures – so that no one should have a heart attack. The reason people have heart attacks is because they don’t know they are risk. They are oblivious, because they don’t have chest pains and they are happily unhealthy until they do suddenly get a chest pain and have a heart attack”, Ehsan explains. “In the United States, only about half of the people who need statins, a medicine that helps control certain fats in the blood, are taking them. This problem tends to primarily affect people with lower incomes. This is not because statins are too expensive, but because these people cannot afford to see a doctor regularly and so the risk remain undiagnosed. In poorer countries, the situation is even worse, with only 8 out of every 100 people who could benefit from statins actually taking them. That means a whopping 92 out of 100 people who could use this medicine aren’t able to get it, even though it doesn’t cost more than a few cents per tablet.” Toku aims to bridge this gap, empowering individuals with the knowledge to proactively manage their health, through informed lifestyle choices as well as medical intervention, and reduce their risk of cardiovascular events.

Expanding its reach globally, Toku has established offices in San Diego CA, Atlanta GA, as well as London, and soon Dubai. The core of the product R&D is still done in New Zealand, but certain aspects of product development can only happen in the country the product is developed for, as every healthcare system differs. This strategic expansion facilitates the integration of Toku’s CLAiR platform into diverse healthcare systems, ensuring seamless delivery of preventive care across borders. With CE and UKCA marks for its technology, Toku is well positioned to revolutionise healthcare delivery in the UK and beyond. Additionally, its Breakthrough Designation in the US expedites FDA clearance, promising accelerated access to their innovative product for US patients.

Central to Toku’s success is its dedicated team. Ehsan emphasises the importance a team who will support one’s decision and who one can rely on and delicate task to, trusting that they will be completed satisfactorily. Additionally, he believes he owes his success to having left New Zealand as soon as he got the chance to do so. While he believes that New Zealand is a great place to start and sanity-check ideas as well as trial and pilot inventions, he is convinced that the moment one can get out, they should, because one has a much better chance of changing the world when positioned outside of New Zealand. He received this same advice from one of the most successful New Zealand entrepreneurs of all time, and so far it has proven to be invaluable.

Looking ahead, Toku envisions widespread adoption of its tools in eye care, setting a new standard for preventive healthcare. In Ehsan’s words, “The vision is for Toku tools to become the most used when it comes to eyes. If you are having an eye exam, you should expect to see Toku’s product. The aim is to be everywhere all the time, because I believe that Toku is the top of the funnel. We want to reach as many people as possible, because the more people we screen, the more impact we have.”

Thinking back to his entrepreneurial beginnings with Velocity, a programme delivered through the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), Ehsan offers the following advice to aspiring future entrepreneurs: “Think big. Do not care if someone says no. As an entrepreneur you will receive 100 nos and one yes, but it is that one yes that counts. Velocity allowed me to get to that one yes. I do not care how many times I hear no, I got used to it. All I need is one yes.”