I know you wear many hats throughout the course of every day. How did this passion for providing others with clear vision become a part of your life?
I know you wear many hats throughout the course of every day. How did this passion for providing others with clear vision become a part of your life?
A little bit is in the intro, but I didn't realize what a disparity there was in vision, in eyeglasses, until I was a Marine Director for EUCOM in charge of Humanitarian Aid and Civic Assistance. And EUCOM at the time were responsible for all DOD activities in Europe and Africa. Every time a military unit would head to Africa or Eastern Europe, they would have doctors or engineers with them, to either build things or help if someone got hurt. And these forces would have time on their hands while waiting for infantry to do training, so we would set them to do humanitarian and civic assistance projects. Engineers would build schools and clinics with pre-fab materials from the US or Canada, and the doctors would set up their clinics or mobile hospitals, and they would do dental work, cleft palate surgeries, medical outreach stuff helping with things that are uncommon elsewhere. The first trip I went on after planning was Morocco in January 2005, and they had all of that set up, and they had a vision screening. I'd worn glasses my whole life, so I said "I want to see that, it sounds interesting!"
So I went down to watch them, and what they would do is the doctors would use an auto-refractor (to shoot a laser in the eye to make measurements) to determine the patient's needs, and then they would get used eyeglasses that most closely matched the patient's vision needs. What I found out was there were a few problems with it:
1) They almost never got 20/20 vision in both eyes. So they would get clear vision in one eye, and the other eye would be improved a bit, but might still be blurry.
2) They didn't get to pick their frames. I saw a young woman get prescribed a pair of HUGE eyeglasses a la Farrah Fawcett. She'd dressed up for the occasion, and she kept handing these huge glasses back, and pointing to a more stylish pair of frames on the table. The doctors kept pointing her to the correct glasses, and when she put on the more stylish small frames, she put them on and walked out holding them at the end of their nose and looking over the top. Clearly she thought I need eyeglasses because my vision is blurry, so if I wear them long enough, I'll get used to them!
When that lady walked out, I shook my head and thought that there has to be a better way to do this.
My first thought was that we needed to create a nice frame that was unisex with snap-in lenses.
So you could take the auto-refractor, take the measurements of each eye, and then snap in the best lens for each eye independently. So I came up with half my kit in 2005.
The issue was that that did not exist in 2005. So what I found was a guy named Professor Josh Silver. He had invented a pair of fluid-filled eyeglasses called AdSpecs and convinced my command to buy these because you got an independent prescription in each eye, which would be better. So we bought several thousand of them, I took them to Angola later in 2005 (around August), and we tried them with optometrists, and then quickly realized that because the patients turned the dial (like binoculars) to tune in their own prescriptive needs, the requirement to have a doctor there was reduced or in some cases eliminated.
I realized that we could increase our outreach by not just working with eyecare professionals. And so we started that program using non-medical professionals to give away eyeglasses on these other military outreach operations. So the military ended up giving away 40,000 pairs on the program that I started. Then I moved on to another job - I handed off that job title to someone else, and then it stopped shortly thereafter.
In 2009, I retired from the Marine Corps. I'd stayed in touch with Josh Silver. And he asked me, in his quintessential Oxford Professor voice: "Kevin, you started this program, and there's 2.5 billion people that need eyeglasses, and have no access to them. We have to come up with other programs to meet that need. It can't just be the military. How should we meet that need?"
As a professional logistician, I gave it some thought, and came up with a 3 step business plan for him.
1) Government programs - Ministries of Health, Transportation and Education
2) NGOs - clinics, hospitals, religious organizations and others conducting healthcare outreach in the desired population areas
3) Social entrepreneurs - once a market had been established, people needed to realize that the eyeball varies from person to person, and glasses are the tool that can correct that visual acuity or deficiency. Once the market is established, social entrepreneurs can come in and sell glasses at very low cost - that would be the transition plan.
And he said - I'll never forget - "That sounds great. When do you start?"
So I said yes, I've just retired, I'll start this charity. So I started Global Vision 20/20 in February 2009, just to get it established. My first thought was: This is SUCH a big problem. And such a simple solution. I thought money would be falling from trees, that it would be easy to find funding to solve this problem! With my experience in the Marine Corps - whether you needed food, fuel, or money - you'd put your hand behind you, and what you needed would appear. But what I failed to translate from the Military to the Civilian Sector was that I had 200,000 Marines helping me do that, and with this nonprofit, I had just me. I realized that I needed a lot more help, and had a deficiency in my education.
I used fluid-filled glasses from 2009-2012 in programs, and probably gave away another 5,000 pairs over the course of those 3 years. But what I realized is that it wasn't the optimal solution. The fluid-filled eyeglasses were limited in design, and had to be perfectly round. And they still had manufacturing issues - they would leak a little bit, and then lose the prescription, not being as durable as conventional eyeglasses.
So in 2013, I did a gap analysis between the conventional eyeglasses (nice pair of eyeglasses, but took a year of training for someone to distribute) and self-refraction eyeglasses systems (at $25 apiece, but easy to distribute). So I discovered we needed a system of self-refraction for the patient to determine their best visual acuity, but the process ENDED with a pair of snap-together eyeglasses.
That's when I invented the Usee, pictured below.
So a lot went into creating the Usee. Can you tell us more?
The inspiration was this gap between conventional eyeglasses and self-refraction eyeglasses. My initial thought was that we could use fluid-filled eyeglasses as a refraction tool, but the issue went back to some training that I'd had as a young submariner back in 1986. Fluid at different altitudes and temperatures had different volumes, and if you lost a drop of it, or got an air bubble in there, there would be a calibration issue (this is very important on submarines, and also with prescriptions!). If your device is off by just a tiny bit - a quarter or even a half-diopter, you're going to get an incorrect pair of eyeglasses. One diopter is one millimeter of movement in the exact focal point of your lens. What a good lens is supposed to do is make the light meet at a specific point at the back of your retina, and that lens in your eye increases or decreases in size as you look closer or farther away. People that need eyeglasses need them because your lens in your eye is either too close or too far from your retina, the back of your eye.
So glasses correct that deficiency by moving the focal point back and forth, and a diopter is a unit of measurement for how far glasses move that focal point.
So we needed something that was always going to be calibrated, so when you determined what your prescriptive needs were, it had to be exactly the same as the snap together lens. So I came up with this in September 13, 2013, and from after dinner until midnight, I was sitting at my kitchen table drawing this thing out, maybe 4 hours I was done, I had it.
The way the Usee works is that the long lens bar has a full 12 diopter range. It goes from -6 to +6 diopters. So 0 is what a person with 20/20 sees - they need zero correction. Hyperopes need a positive range for distances, and Myopes need a negative lens (and this is the vast majority of people). So this system allows you to solve both near and far vision problems. The lens changes power as the patient turns the dial, and naturally moves the focal point across the retina - just like a pair of binoculars, it's very intuitive. I've put this on children and elderly people in the developing world, and regardless of age, they turn the wheel, their vision gets clear, and their eyebrows go up - that they can see clearly for the first time.
The colors and numbers on the side of the lens are super-simple. If you start talking "diopters" and "-1.5" that's going to complicate the issue and slow down the education process. What could be simpler than a color / number system? Red 1,2,3,4? So if a patient dials into a Green 2, you pull a Green bag with the number 2 on it, and snap that lens in. If they dial in a Red 4, you pull a Red bag with a number 4 on it, snap it in. You put the glasses on the patient, do a retest to make sure it works, and then you're done.
Every step I took to get this kit to where it is was asking how can it be simpler? So a community health worker with maybe one day of education on the system can be an effective distributor of eyeglasses. I have trained farmers with no formal education on how to do the system, and they've picked it up easily. It's practical, and if they can talk to someone, they can do it.
National Geographic has been very pivotal to your story. Can you share more on that?
National Geographic was cool because it really put us on the map as a viable solution. I was featured in September 2017 - right as I was presenting at the UN. We won the National Geographic "Chasing Genius" in the Healthcare category - you can see the video here.
That gave us a lot of credibility, that I wasn't just a Marine with an outlandish idea. Global Vision 20/20 had been vetted by an incredible panel from National Geographic. We got more interest in what we were doing, and a few months after that, the clinical trials from Johns Hopkins was published - so those two things combined, showing results from a bona fide medical institution, and a trusted publication, showed we were a viable solution to solve this problem.
You've traveled all around the world with Global Vision 20/20. What are some of the most unique places you've been?
Paraguay was an interesting place to visit. Paraguay has an indigenous population that values a nomadic lifestyle, and the rest of the population values a more conventional lifestyle where you own and farm a specific piece of land. The indigenous population has been given land, but is not able to roam all over the place as hunter-gatherers. They make enough for themselves, but money has no value for them (relatively), so they were having a difficult time fitting into society. So Fundacion Paraguay put on an event to help alleviate poverty in Paraguay, and they invited me to visit and showcase increasing access to eyeglasses as part of the sustainable development goals they are working on - equal access to education, healthcare, economic empowerment, gender equality, road safety, and overall quality of life.
Poor vision affects every aspect of your life. For those with access, it is not a disability - if you need -13 eyeglasses here, it's relatively easy to get access to eyeglasses, and then you can drive a car, study or work. In Paraguay, where there is challenging access, you are legally blind with -13 vision. My main focus historically has been Africa, but I've been to Paraguay, Vietnam, and India, areas where there is a large need for vision for the population.
I am still talking to Fundacion Paraguay trying to determine the best model to get the Usee glasses out. I did provide them with several "backpacks" of Usee kits to distribute. Each backpack includes everything you need, from lenses to frames to the Usee system, to outfit 500 people with durable custom eyeglasses (you can pledge to support a backpack on our website).
This is Ada in Paraguay, with one of the backpacks. Have backpack, will travel!
Namibia was another opportunity to highlight how easy it was to distribute eyeglasses. I took my 2 sons with me for a few reasons; to get them to experience why I was so passionate about giving away eyeglasses, and to show people that a 15 year old and a 13 year old can be effective and efficient screeners and distributors of eyeglasses. We flew into Windhook, Namibia (the capital), and then we rented a safari vehicle with a tent on the roof, and we had this camper, and drove to schools, setting up vision screenings and distributing glasses to kids, teachers, parents - anyone who needed them. We were there 3.5 weeks. When we were bush camping, your "Spidey Senses" start tingling - at one point, we noticed a troop of baboons walking near where we were camped. Baboons can be pretty dangerous, and here I am with my two teenage sons, thinking how smart was it to do this? But people do this all the time, so I sent them to sleep with a shovel, and told them that if anyone started messing with the tent, if that thing doesn't respond to a verbal warning, you hit the side of the tent with the shovel! Nothing happened, the baboons steered clear of us, but we were miles from anywhere.
What keeps you going when the going gets tough?
The fact that my life would have suffered immeasurably had I not had glasses. And there are 2.5 billion people out there who are experiencing the same things, but for their whole lives. My sons both wear eyeglasses, and I imagine their lives if they didn't have glasses.
Winning at the WeWork Global Creator Awards was instrumental for your organization. What was that experience like, to find out that you'd won?
What's your vision (pun intended) for 2020, seeing as it's going to be such a major year for your organization?
The greatest thing about winning at the Creator Awards was meeting Victoria and the other people involved. The funds allowed us to go from making 20-30 Usee units at one time, to making THOUSANDS at a time. I increased my staff, and found really good people to help me with this mission. And very similarly to the National Geographic award, it added outside validation that it's real, that this system is real and has to work to help those 2.5 billion people in need. The encouragement I got from the folks at WeWork, the encouragement to work harder, and the fact that Adam and his team believed in me, that was pretty humbling. The experience of finding out I won - the word is overused, but it was surreal. We weren't told who was going to come out first, or in what order, but sitting in that booth backstage with Samantha Snabes, when we were the last two, we turned and looked to each other and guessed it was either her or me! We thought we were going to win something, and I was happy for her, but I really wanted to win the $1 million. So when we came out and found out we'd both won the $1 million prize, we were both floored. And I got to introduce my boys to LeVar Burton, which was great.
This year, leading up to 2020, now we have product, it is going to be finding the right distribution partners so we can hit 1 million glasses distributed in 2020. So it's establishing those government relationships and grants to build the distribution capability. By 2020 I want to have a distribution center somewhere in Africa - either Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, possibly South Africa, so much to think about. But for 2020, the goal is to get the networks established that can hit our goals of distribution.
The issue that conventional glasses distribution has is the bottleneck of training people who can dispense eyeglasses. We've taken that training from one year to one day. We still have the same limitation of refraction - we can't hit trachoma, glaucoma, or cataracts - but you can identify them and put them into the eye health network for a higher echelon of care (this is the same with other refraction-based organizations). That ability to train someone in a day is a game-changer. And as long as we incorporate it under the umbrella of the eye health community, you're going to increase the efficiency of that entire eye health community to be able to address the other pathologies. These screeners will be able to identify when they can't help someone with a pair of eyeglasses, but they can help push them into the system.
And as of January 1 of 2019, we've become members of the IAPB, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, and they've added our Usee kit to the IAPB standards list. What this means is that the international eye health community has endorsed our system as a viable solution to refractive error. That's why I went to Johns Hopkins, that's why we we're doing field trials with the University of Johannesburg, we're doing clinical trials at Hanoi Medical College for children, so we are doing this all under the umbrella of the greater eye health community. This is very important to me, because I don't want to be a "cowboy." I'm building this team so we can address the problem correctly, ethically, and efficiently.
To others out there who are dreaming of starting a nonprofit or other entrepreneurial organization, what words of wisdom would you want to share?
Find what you're passionate about. What injustice do you think you can make a difference in? What can't you live with? And really dig deep into why it's not happening. What's wrong with the system that we can't solve this issue? And then become an expert. And then don't be afraid to think outside the box a little bit. I've had lens physicists look at my device, optometrists, and they all have the same reaction - this is really SIMPLE. And I respond with "Yes, it has to be!" I came at it from the perspective of how can we reduce error - either you can, or you cannot see - as easily as possible. It's about ease of access. You don't need electricity. You don't need a smartphone.
And then once you have that idea, get it formalized; either from where you are to where you want to be, or planning backwards on how to get there. So whether it's finding customers, finding money, finding clients - just keep working on that plan.
And then most importantly - don't give up! I've been working on this for ten years.