Over 1 billion people in the world need glasses, but can’t afford them or don’t have access to them. That’s why StartupYard investor and mentor Philip Staehelin launched a Czech startup – DOT Glasses – to try to solve this massive problem 3 years ago.
Today he believes they finally have the solution, and are about to launch large-scale production of the world’s first, one-size-fits-all eyeglass frames (which were designed by a joint venture of Mercedes-Benz and AKKA Technologies), along with a transformative lens concept.
Philip is the former CEO of CCS, the former Managing Partner of Roland Berger, and an alumnus of many other international companies like Accenture, T-Mobile and A.T. Kearney.
Earlier this year, DOT Glasses received a “matching funds grant” from CzechAid (up to CZK 5m over 3 years), and they’ve recently won a place in the EU-funded Startup Europe’s Soft Landing program to India (called the “Ecosystem Discovery Mission”). They were one of the 24 European representatives selected for the program.
I sat down with Philip this week to talk about the launch of DOT Glasses, along with the crowdfunding campaign to support the company on hithit (you can check the link to contribute). Here’s what he had to say:
Lloyd: Why glasses?
Philip: There are a few parts to the story, of course. If you’re asking specifically why I decided to focus on providing glasses to people in developing regions, it’s just one of those weird coincidences that suddenly made me realize that a 700-year-old industry could still be disrupted.
If you mean, why glasses and why provide them to developing regions, it’s because I’ve long been focused on making an impact beyond my immediate “bubble”, and I was at a stage in my career where I wanted to use my time and resources to help those most in need of things we take for granted here in the developed world.
The idea specifically came to me while I was skiing, and it’s funny because at first it seemed like a pretty first world problem to have. I’m mildly nearsighted now (although I used to have very bad eyesight, and had laser surgery 15 years ago to correct my vision), so I wear glasses. I can do without them, but I like the world in sharp focus.
When I ski, I don’t like to wear my glasses under my ski goggles, so I usually go without – which isn’t always good especially when skiing moguls. On the ski lift, I was daydreaming about buying some “off-the-shelf” lenses to pop into some specially-designed ski goggles, providing me improved (if not perfect) vision to make my skiing more comfortable. I didn’t want to spend money on prescription ski goggles – it wasn’t worth it, and it was a hassle – but I started thinking about what could be “good enough” vision and how I could stock some limited range of lenses on the shelf next to ski goggles, so people could just select what lens helped them enough.
The next ride up on the ski lift brought me a eureka moment. “Good enough” vision was all about smartly limiting the selection of lenses. It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule that’s prevalent in so many facets of life and business. 20% of the effort for 80% of the gain. 20% of the lenses to achieve 80% of the vision clarity. If it was true (and the implications came crashing down on me all at once)… it could transform an industry. But not the ski industry with a few million customers at best.
Rather, it could disrupt the eyeglasses industry for people in need. Actually, “disrupt” is the wrong word in this case, because more than 1 billion people need glasses but have no access to them or can’t afford them. So there is not a current player to disrupt. It’s more about tapping into a new, massive customer segment that has been unaddressable because of the challenges of costs, logistics, lack of optometrists, etc.
When I got back home, I started researching the issue. You may think, living in Europe, that we are drowning in optometrists, because they are on every corner of every major city. Actually we have something like 1 optometrist for every 3000 people, and about 60% of those optometrists are usually based in the capital cities.
On the contrary, in many underdeveloped regions, such as in parts of Africa, there are not enough optometrists to go around. In some cases, there are only a handful in an entire country with millions of people. In Ghana, there are about 50 optometrists for a population of nearly 20 million, and the per capita income is less than a dollar a day. Getting glasses can take a week’s travel and several months’ wages.
Which means that for a vast swath of the world’s population – glasses are either an unaffordable luxury, or they’re simply not available. If you have +/-1 diopter (also known as 20/40 vision), you can absolutely live a normal life. In the UK for instance, 20/40 is the required driving standard. But once you start getting past +/-3 diopters (20/250), it starts to become difficult to lead a normal life. I have first-hand experience, as I used to have -6 diopters before my laser surgery, and as a kid, I literally couldn’t find my family at the beach if I didn’t have my glasses.
That’s so interesting. Basically there is no existing market to help these people.
Exactly. Poor vision is the #1 health issue in the world, but almost no one talks about it. It causes roughly $230 billion dollars of economic loss every single year, but on an individual level, poor eyesight prevents people from learning in school, it prevents them from having a meaningful job (or any job), and it hurts families and communities. Poor vision literally traps people and families in poverty. But it’s been too challenging to treat poor vision in more remote parts of the world, even though the solution has been around for centuries.
So in the end I decided on a simple concept (I actually call it “maximum simplification”): a set of glasses that are both modular, and cheap, which can reach developing regions fairly easily, and don’t require a professional optometrist to be dispensed to the end user. All you need, to provide a pair of customized DOT Glasses is a very simple testing tool (that we developed), and the components of your individual set of glasses: the 6 pieces of the snap-together frames, and the right strength of lenses (which, by the way, are “left-right agnostic” – a concept we also developed, allowing for the same lens shape to be used as a right or left lens, which reduces lens stock requirements by half). The end result: robust, good-looking, glasses that are available to a buyer for about $3.
$3 is a lot to some people
Yes. If you live on $2 a day, then $3, comparatively speaking, is pretty close to what a person in the developed world would pay for their own glasses from an optometrist. We have worked very hard to make them as affordable as possible, and $3 is the lowest we’ve been able to get it. For those wanting to correct a less severe problem with their eyesight (e.g. -2 diopters), this price point may not be absolutely compelling, but for the more severe cases, it’s the best investment they will ever make. It will be completely life changing.
Why haven’t charities really attacked this problem before?
They have – there have been many projects targeting this problem, but none has been able to address all the issues needed to scale properly. Those that train optometrists are doing a great thing, but the world needs about 100,000 optometrists to bring the per capita ratio even close to a 1st world ratio… and they still wouldn’t be located in rural areas.
There are a lot of economic incentives against optometrists locating themselves in poorer areas. They go where people can pay more, especially if they are in high demand. That means you can train thousands of new optometrists and still have little impact in remote regions. They will go where the money is.
Others focus on delivering self-adjustable glasses with some fairly advanced technologies (two stand out: fluid-based lenses and Alvarez lenses). But in reality, these are over-engineered which keeps costs much too high. They deal with one shortage (optometrists), but they exacerbate another shortage (money). And they don’t look like normal glasses – they’re simply not fashionable enough.
Those that attempt to solve the problem by providing regular glasses as cheaply as possible still run into issues such as: huge stock of frames and lenses needed to address all of the combinations of faces (including pupil distance and ears distance from eyes) and eyesight requirements. This increases the cost of stock, and makes replenishing that stock much more complicated and costly, but it also requires a trained optometrist (or at least an optician) to measure the eyesight to a fairly granular level. All of this adds complexity and costs, which makes it impossible to propagate into more remote rural areas.
Also, I think one of the big problems with the all-charity approach is that they often fail to take the motivations of the people they are working with into account. If you develop real economic incentives for people to distribute the glasses as a product, for example, by supplying a few local people with the training and the equipment necessary to dispense them, then you are effectively creating a new market. That’s the reason we developed our own super easy testing kit as well, because at the end of the day, we want this to be a new viable small business opportunity for people in these remote areas, where previously providing glasses was not economically feasible.
That is why the glasses are not free to begin with. If we relied on charitable donations, we would also miss out on the opportunity to leverage the entrepreneurial energy of these local partners, who, let’s be honest, are going to understand their own local markets and customers a lot better than we do.
This is really the core failure of many NGO projects: they don’t really consider the long-term incentives of the participants and recipients of their help. Of course, not relying on donations also allows DOT Glasses to scale much faster than other organizations, as the business model is sustainable and the revenues are reinvested into growing the footprint to help more people. The more we can sell, the faster we’ll grow. We just need to “prime the pump” with donations and/or social impact investment in the early stages in order to build out our first networks.
So you’re not a charity.
No. We have charitable intentions (and we’re a true social enterprise), but I also believe that it’s in a way disrespectful to people in economically challenged regions to assume that they are not motivated in the same way that people are in developed regions, by the opportunity to pursue success and prosperity with hard work. That’s why we believe end-users of our glasses should be paying for them, and the profits from that activity should benefit the local economies as much as possible. Ultimately, that is the way to help these regions develop.
Also, in many cases, charitable activities can have a detrimental impact in the area they’re trying to help. They may end up hurting developing economies, even though they have the best intentions at heart. Think of food charities that end up displacing local farmers who can’t compete with free stuff. That’s a real problem with charities, and one that is rather insidious.
Even sending volunteers to teach in slums can have negative consequences, because the local government starts to depend on the free handout (in this case, education) and doesn’t develop a properly functioning, stable educational infrastructure of its own. Which means they don’t care about creating their own teachers, and those few teachers that there are may actually have lower salaries because they’re competing against “free”.
With our work, we hope to create microbusinesses, with the help of microloans if necessary. We want to have entrepreneurial people start up their own eye care businesses. In the process, they create a better life for themselves and their families, but they’re also selling a new lease on life to those who can’t see well. And it’s been proven, that there is a tremendous increase in productivity when someone gets their poor vision corrected, which means additional wealth creation for individuals, families and communities. It’s a true virtuous cycle.
You spent a career as an executive in big corporations, as a consultant, and finally as an investor (including in StartupYard). What would you advise someone like yourself, who is thinking about a career shift toward charitable/entrepreneurial work?
It’s a great question. The road from the boardroom to developing DOT Glasses for remote regions of the world was a pretty long and winding one. But the fact that it was long and winding is important, as I learned new things from every role I ever had. Small things and big things. I became more well-rounded, and I could see the world from more angles.
I’m a huge believer in cross-pollination of ideas between industries, between companies, between countries, etc. For example, I brought a lot of my mobile operator experience to my role as CEO of a large alternative payments company, because both had a lot of B2B and B2C customers, both needed customer care, both needed direct sales, both were concerned about customer churn… and in some cases the mobile operator approach could be adapted to create a better solution for the payments company.
This isn’t a unique experience obviously, but the corporate world is set up against this to some extent. They want to hire people with experience from their own industry. But I went through a few different industries, as well as through consulting (which teaches you a lot about how to structure problems, organize projects, analyze data, and find the core essence of the analysis), and I started using that breadth of experience to mentor startups.
Startups (especially with young founders) often know a lot about their technology, their market dynamics and perhaps a few other select bits of information – but they often lack the big picture. They also often lack some key skill sets that they will need, such as sales, finance, and strategy, not to mention, they have no idea how to talk to the corporate world (although I admit I’m hugely generalizing).
So I help them with that. But perhaps even more important than providing some insights into missing skills, is providing cross-pollination. It’s all about identifying new opportunities (even new tangents) that aren’t obvious. It’s about synthesizing new value by bringing together entirely new elements. Which is what I did with DOT Glasses.
Coming back to part of your question though, the answer is to strive to become a cross-pollinator. Constantly learn new things, challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone as often as possible, get out of your corporate bubble, and go out into the world and do things. Mentor startups, work in a charity, join a business club – but if you do it, do everything actively. Make an impact. Don’t be passive, because then it’s just a waste of time. I like to say that “life is too short to do just one thing”. I believe in side interests. I believe in planting lots of seeds and seeing what sprouts. And eventually one of those things can grow into something bigger and more beautiful than you could have imagined.
But don’t forget the lessons you learn in the corporate world about pursuing long-term economic interests, including your own?
Yeah, that’s right. Social impact work is not necessarily charity. We don’t just give, we also look for sustainable opportunities that can grow the overall economies we are focusing on. That in the end is a benefit to us, and to those regions. In my view, there are many, many activities that are currently approached with a “charity” mindset, that might be better served by a social impact, entrepreneurial mindset as well.
Hey, this isn’t rocket science here! We all know the saying: “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Well, it’s not just teaching is it? Make someone your business partner, no matter what it is they’re doing, and make it mutually beneficial, and that is going to create opportunities for you both.
How do you think corporate officers, like you were in the past, can better contribute to this kind of sustainable social impact?
Let’s say this: I think it comes down to really trying to understand, and develop a respect for the people you are trying to help. When I think about social impact, I think about not only looking at ways of improving someone’s life, but also improving my own, and the lives of those around that person. That comes back to you, in the end. There is a part of social impact that should be “selfish,” in a way. I am doing this because I want to live in a better world, for me as well as for you.
I think it is a danger among those of us who enjoy some material success, that we begin to imagine that we are giving and no longer taking anything. However in most charitable activities that just isn’t true. We are taking a lot, in terms of what matters to us: respect, reputation, the feeling of doing good works. That is something of value. You should always be aware of what motivates you to do what you do.
Again, nothing wrong with feeling good for giving back. But I would encourage people to go further than that, and to think about how their actions really tie back into their own lives. This is how we empathize with people in the real world.
If I am helping someone in a remote village in India to see better, then how is this affecting my own life? I can tell you, it does affect my life. Leaving aside that each individual with the proper tools in life has a chance to change the world, to be the next Einstein, I am also helping to make sure that this person is being economically productive.
If people are more economically productive, it is more likely that they will be prosperous, and so will need less support in other ways. Eventually, developing regions become developed, and I can enjoy the benefits of that development in my own life. That is a prosperous cycle, and if you don’t actively look to see it, I think you lose sight of why you’re doing what you do. You may end up not really respecting the people you’re trying to help.
What have you learned from this that you didn’t already know? What has surprised you?
I’m an inventor at heart. I have lots of ideas. But I have learned something really new in the process of moving this project past “idea” stage, and into realization.
What I discovered is that the true “innovations” that end up happening are not only around the idea itself, but rather the things you have to invent in order to get that idea to work. What I mean is, the “solutions around the solution,” are actually where a great deal of the creative work happens.
So I start out with the lightning strike about “good enough vision” which creates a transformative lens concept. But to realize the potential of the lens concept, I had to work very, very hard to develop one-size-fits-all modular glasses (only my 3rd industrial designer cracked the nut – the first two didn’t find a solution), because I realized that the combination of those two elements could be the magic bullet to solve a vexing problem that no one else had managed to solve.
But after I had the glasses, I realized I needed some tools to facilitate the streamlined process I was imagining, so I had to design a vision tester and a pupil distance measuring tool. And then to bundle all that together into one “kit”, and designing an end-to-end process around that kit in order to get the glasses to those people that needed them… it was one problem after another that had to be addressed.
Each step required an innovation, but the innovations built on each other. Would someone have designed my pupil distance measuring tool without my modular glasses? No. But they were required for the entirely new ecosystem that I was building. So building the entire ecosystem took much more time than I expected.
So in the end, the work is more creative than the ideation.
Yep. It is. That’s something you can’t know until you try. I’m happy to have found that out, because being really creative and solving real problems every day is how I like to live my life.
If you’re interested in contributing to the DOT Glasses project, you can do so today by clicking below and pledging to their crowdfunding campaign: