‘Playing the niches’: telemedicine disrupting the optical industry with a 5 min vision exam

click to enlarge This Editor visited a ‘demo evening’ for Smart Vision Labs, which has developed an iPhone based system that takes a basic vision exam for fitting glasses or checking contact lenses that takes just five minutes. The system uses wavefront technology that takes photos of each eye for refraction measurements, including pupillary distance, and some patient questions, which are key to getting an accurate glasses prescription. The telemedicine part is that the digital data is stored and forwarded to a licensed ophthalmologist, who reviews it for basic conditions such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. Smart Vision then emails the vision provider with the results and prescription within 24 hours, also storing it for the patient in a secure site they can access with a login.

The SVOne Enterprise (pictured) is the third generation of the original device developed by founder Yaopeng Zhou, PhD and Marc Albanese, who met while graduate students in electrical engineering at Boston University, working on research in adaptive optics at Boston’s Schepens Eye Research Institute. While MBA students, they revived their optical interest based on market opportunity. Some barriers to vision health they wanted to disrupt: the general shortage of ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians; the reluctance of many people to have their eyes examined, cost, time, and convenience. They started in 2013, raised $2.5 million between 2014-15, and capped it with a Series A of $6.1 million in 2015 through Techstar Ventures and four other investors (Crunchbase).

According to their new senior VP of marketing, Josef Katz, the SVOne can break many barriers by being quick, easy and accurate. “We’re disrupting a very established business, but we’re also expanding it.”Their current customers are optical stores in New York and California. In growing the business nationally, Mr Katz explained that Smart Vision is targeting independent vision stores who don’t have an optometrist on staff. They also wind up filling prescriptions that are not entirely accurate, which gives them remaking expense. Who’s the end user? Smart Vision is specifying between 18 and 60 without health issues, but their concentration is on Generation Z and millennials 18-35. This group may be glasses wearers or new to correction, but they already are having vision changes, attributable to being ‘digital natives’ on computers and smartphones. This group also doesn’t like the inconvenience, the time taken for the usual vision exam, and the expense. Another appeal is the ‘cool factor’ of the smartphone-based technology.

Customers still need a full vision exam (the type that dilates your eyes) about every two years, but the hope is that this initial exam will start to educate them about their vision health.

Smart Vision Labs went ‘all out’ for the major US vision provider conference, the International Vision Expo East. According to Mr Katz, they went to gain exposure by demoing hundreds of exams a day, nurture their customer base, sign up ophthalmologists and optometrists to work with them, and close some deals. Future developments are leveraging their machine learning, a UX that includes web registration and a prescreening, Spanish language support, corporate and mobile clinics.

Why is this a huge market needing disruption? WHO estimates that there are 600 million in the developing world who require vision correction. In the developed world, about 60 percent either wear glasses, contact lenses or have had corrective eye surgery (various sources). 240 million in the US wear glasses. Vision decline due to computers and smartphones may grow to a high of 50 percent of the world’s population by 2050, based on a research study in Ophthalmology (Telegraph UK).

How is this ‘playing the niches’–and why is this wise? Being able to see properly is a specific and important problem. Vision is also an underserved market. This Editor has maintained that at least for the foreseeable future, successful companies solve problems exactly like this. After all the ‘revolutionary’ gadgetry, corporate wellness searching for ROI, Big Data solving everything (and nothing) in population health, and ‘value-based care’ mantras, niche solutions feel fresh and new. Anything that simplifies a process, increases accessibility and saves money is attractive to customers truly looking for value, professional providers, and investors. Notably, Smart Vision hasn’t gone to VCs and overcapitalized. Thus, to this Editor, this is a company and category to watch. (For more thoughts on this POV, see the first half of this 9 Dec 2016 article.)

Thanks to Josef Katz, TM Matthew and Bill Ryan of Smart Vision.

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