Czech-US start up aims to help millions of people with poor vision

Photo: archive of Philip Staehelin

An estimated 2.5 billion people around the world suffer from poor vision and over one billion people, mostly in the developing world, can’t afford glasses or don’t have access to them. Previous efforts to address the problem failed because the proffered solutions were either too complex or too costly to scale globally. Now a Czech-US start-up, DOT Glasses, has come up with a solution that offers huge promise. Their one-size-fits-all glasses, designed by a joint venture of Mercedes Benz and Akka Technologies, are self-adjustable, accommodate standard lenses, do not require an optometrist and, at the price of just 3 dollars, are affordable enough to make them accessible to millions, eventually billions of people. I spoke to the firm’s founder and CEO Philip Staehelin about the idea behind this promising enterprise.

Photo: archive of Philip Staehelin
“Well, it was never my intention to become an eye doctor or anything, but I am an innovator at heart and I used to suffer from very bad vision, minus six dioptres, I couldn’t find my family at the swimming pool and so on. Then I had laser surgery and I had perfect eyesight for about ten or twelve years. When I started getting around the minus one dioptre again I thought - I should get glasses. And years later it struck me that maybe this plus/minus one dioptre is good enough, because you can survive with a minus one dioptre quite easily. And in the UK you can even drive with a minus one dioptre. Then it struck me that this might have a profound impact on the cost structure of serving the poorest of the poor who need glasses.

"So I went home and I did some maths and I realized that if my plus/minus one dioptre assumption was correct I would literally only need five lenses to serve 80 to 90 percent of the population with standard uncorrected refractive error. That got me excited, because usually it is 30 or 50 lenses required, and I could do it with five. So I thought OK, that great, it has some impact, but it’s not enough because everyone’s head is different, eyes are different, ears are different. And I naively thought I could design the one-size-fits-all glasses.”

In the end you approached a Prague company about that?

“I approached some people in Prague, some young designers, thinking that young designers who hadn’t been spoilt by too much work might have some creative ideas, but unfortunately it didn’t work in this case…so I was complaining bitterly to one of my clients when I was managing partner at Roland Berger and he happened to be the managing director of MBtech, a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, and he said why don’t you let my designers try to crack this for you. So then it took close to a year back and forth, but we finally had the glasses and then the lenses and then suddenly we had something that might be world-changing.”

What criteria did you have to meet in creating these glasses? There would have been various aspects to consider, such as cost…

“Cost, yes. There were a number of elements. When I first started talking about this to family and friends it was amazing how often people said “hey, they’ve got to be stylish, because even if you are poor, you don’t want to look bad”. Which was interesting, because some of these other companies that have tried to come up with a solution leave you looking like a science experiment, and they weren’t very successful. So they needed to be stylish, they needed to be incredibly cheap, so I said let’s try to make them out of injection molded plastic, no metal parts, simple design and I had this idea that you could snap things together to get the right size.

"The main thing was it had to very simple because the idea was to provide them in the poorest places in the world where there is no eye-care specialist. And with 5 lenses you do not need an eye specialist, you can essentially self-measure. We made some proprietary testing tools as well, but they are very, very basic. And I wanted to be able to provide this solution on the market with a maximum 30 minutes of training. So everything had to be simplified.”

So these glasses will fit you, and help you, but what happens if your eyesight worsens?

Photo: archive of Philip Staehelin
“If that happens hopefully we can come round again and provide new glasses. We are getting people to a place where they can have a life, where they can learn if they are a student or earn if they are an adult and it is proven that if you invest just 1 dollar into glasses there is a 25 dollar positive economic impact. And on the individual level – we experienced this first-hand in Angola – people can get a job which they couldn’t get before, because they can suddenly see. Their income levels will go up, once they see better and hopefully they can eventually go to a real eye-doctor, get tested in the normal channels and get very accurate prescriptions. But in the meantime we are the lifeline; we are providing that basic need to the population at large.”

You said cheap – how cheap are we talking about?

“I am trying to get the production costs of the frames below 50 cents and the lenses are from a supplier, we don’t have as much flexibility there, but eventually, including the middlemen I would like to be able to sell them on the market at three dollars.”

So the idea is someone can come to you and walk away with a pair of glasses that fit and correct their eye problem?

“Exactly, what is unique about the frames is that they are cheap and one-size-fits all. The nose piece was tricky because the nose bridge is actually a proxy on your pupil distance, so we have an innovation patent on the solution that we stumbled upon. That was a very, very challenging bit to overcome. And now the idea is to create networks of micro-entrepreneurs who would buy a kit from us – say ten frames, roughly 30 lenses to solve the problems of any random 10 people and then come back and get restocked. So there’s no two-way logistics. They go there, they measure you and they deliver the glasses right on site.”

You have already been to India with this project. What was it like?

Photo: archive of Philip Staehelin
“It was a tremendous experience. I have been to India a couple times, in the big cities, staying in Western style-hotels, but this time we went to the very small villages, we went to the slums, and it was a remarkable experience. Of course, there are a couple of shocks to the system, but overall the people were unbelievably nice, so welcoming to us and so happy to have a solution. We took about a thousand pairs of glasses there and we were able to deliver about 600 in that span of time. So it was a tremendous success all around. We hit four different locations across India and did a total of seven trials with four partners in about twelve days – we were in Assam, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai – and we think that we made a real impact.”

Will you be cooperating with eye-doctors or clinics or the local authorities?

“Yes, all of the above hopefully. What is interesting about these four partners is that they were all very different, because we were testing distribution channels in a sense. So there was a private chain of eye hospitals and clinics, there was a company that sends out community health workers with a backpack who go to villages to measure people’s blood pressure, do some weighing and provide some feminine hygiene products and we were thinking about adding our kit into their kit –so that was a nice test as well. And we also worked with one NGO and one international organization and had some discussions with health care people in the cities we visited. So we are looking at finding any distribution partner – it could be a health ministry, an NGO, a private network. We really do not want to limit ourselves. We can actually tap into any of those channels very, very easily.”

As far as the glasses go, this was the first big test. You say you distributed 600 pairs of eyeglasses. Did everyone leave happy?

“Everyone seemed to leave happy and we are trying to get some feedback from some of those villages. But I think the trials went extraordinarily well and we came back very happy and very much energized to continue our journey and try to extend what we are doing.”

You got support for this project from the Czech Development Agency, mainly because it is a sustainable project that will help millions of people. Can you explain what the benefits are for the locals?

Photo: archive of Philip Staehelin
“The Czech Development Agency played an absolutely critical role, because I self-funded the project for years, literally and the investment into injection molds was quite substantial and although I was talking to investors –because we were doing something completely different, in a space where a lot of people were not very comfortable, saying hey, we are taking optometrists out of the mix, the optometrists did not like that of course… so the potential investors got nervous, and we thought OK, we are going to have to go forward ourselves. But then the Czech Development Agency came though and it was the trigger that allowed me to go further, invest into the injection molds and take the additional risk to really launch this thing commercially.”

But what was key to getting you that aid?

“Well, we are a Czech company, we are building a team here but also we are very, very unique in what we are trying to achieve. The goal is to become sustainable and scalable and hopefully we will not have to rely on grants in the future, but at the outset we need a bit of support in order to become sustainable and scalable, and in time I think our project could be enormous, because there are roughly 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t see properly and don’t have access to glasses or can’t afford them. So if we start addressing that problem then the global impact could be absolutely enormous.”

You have huge ambitions for this project. Where are you heading now? How long will it take to establish yourself in India and where will you move next?

“Well, we are tremendously ambitious and we decided to focus on India as a condition of Czechaid (Czech Development Agency) because I had global ambitions and they asked me to select one country first. So I selected India and it was a good choice –it is one country and yet there are many regions, many languages. It is not an easy place to do business, but for us it is a great proving ground. But at the same time we did continue some discussions, so we have a partner in South Africa now who is working on some very large deals there both through the government ministries but also through some private channels, we have a partner in Ghana who is working on some deals, we are discussing a partnership in Afghanistan as well. The situation there has worsened somewhat so we are a bit nervous to do the training there ourselves …but there is tremendous need of what we are offering around the world and we want to fill that gap.”

We are talking about millions, billions of people … how on Earth can you meet that demand?

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“That’s the beauty about injection molded technology, we make the molds and we can run about a million pairs of glasses on a mould. And of course scaling is not just about production it is also about distribution, logistics, etc. so initially we are trying to be a kind of a wholesaler into existing distribution channels. Eventually we may need to set up our own distribution network as well, especially the more capillary networks with micro-entrepreneurs and markets…but I think there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. There are thousands and thousands of organizations who do try to help people in their local markets in terms of health or vision or anything like that. So we want to piggyback on those and become a wholesaler into those channels and hopefully have a tremendous impact without actually having to have a tremendously large organization there or back at home.”