A MAJOR funding shortfall could derail Australia's hopes of developing the world's first bionic eye, with a key group working on the project reporting a need of almost $2 million.
Bionic Vision Australia, a consortium of some of the country's top research institutions, secured a four-year, $42 million federal grant in 2009 after the idea was floated at the 2020 summit in 2008.
Delivered in instalments, the money was to last until the end of next year. But on Wednesday the group will launch a public appeal for funds, without which it says it will be unable to leap-frog international rivals or secure on-going contracts for researchers.
Originally the grant was to cover the development and implantation into a patient of a 98-electrode bionic eye by 2013. A 256-electrode, high-acuity device, being developed at Melbourne University, would then be refined the year after the grant expired.
But the group's decision to accelerate research and build and implant a 24-electrode device this year instead of next - making results available earlier in the project rather than at the end - has left a $1.8 million hole that needs to be filled within six months.
''When we are planning for what we need to do in 2013, we've got a major shortfall,'' Bionic Vision Australia chairman David Penington said. ''Certain things are now being held back which, if we did have more money, we could complete and have a better outcome in 2013.'' While the group has enough money to complete the work with the three patients who this year received a 24-electrode implant, there is concern that without a financial boost the project is in danger of losing some of its 150 staff.
An IT specialist has already been lost due to lack of funds.
''If we can raise even half a million, it will make a difference to the most urgent things,'' he said. ''Otherwise people will be looking for other jobs if their future is not secure.''
Bionic Vision Australia includes Melbourne University, the ICT research centre NICTA, the University of NSW, the Bionics Institute and the Australian National University.
Requests for a new three-year funding deal made to state and federal governments have so far failed.
Philanthropic foundations and individuals are being approached but Professor Penington said overseas donors would not be contacted until the commercial development stage begins - scheduled for the end of 2014.
''Like the bionic ear, it's an Australian development and we want to get it to the point where we really do have something from Australia to offer before we run the risk of losing control,'' he said.
Among the first three patients to receive the 24-electrode prototype is Murray Rowland, who had the bionic eye implanted in July. It was switched on in October - a moment he described as ''mind blowing''.
''It was like a little candle light flickering and then a minute later when they turned it up it was like a bolt of lightning,'' he said.
Mr Rowland, 50, has been blind since his late teens after suffering retinitis pigmentosa. The degenerative eye condition left him only able to perceive a degree of light and dark. And while his bionic eye is only switched on once a week for assessment, he said he was thrilled to be part of the project.
''Providing the state and federal governments can dip into their pockets, I'm pleased to know I am helping my fellow blind people and giving back to the community'' he said. ''And I feel very honoured to be doing that.''