Today, Silver heads Adaptive Eyecare, a privately held Oxford, England-based startup. Although he has secured scores of patents on his invention, Silver has directed his company’s attention to making his adjustable eyeglasses as widely available as possible. To that end, Silver believes he can bring the cost of production below a dollar per pair. Adaptive Eyecare is in discussion with the World Health Organization, the governments of several African countries, retailers, and nonprofit organizations to figure out the best way to distribute the eyeglasses to 10 million people in Ghana and southern Africa.Adaptive Eyecare’s early eyeglasses are thick and clunky. But by pumping silicone oil into their spectacles, people can adjust them until they get the prescriptions that are just right for their eyes. Because they are adjustable, Silver’s eyeglasses eliminate the need for an exam by an optometrist and the costly infrastructure of a staffed lens-grinding facility to prepare individual prescriptions.
As Silver notes, the lack of such expertise and facilities in poor countries has presented a nearly insurmountable obstacle to widespread dissemination of corrective eyeglasses-barriers that would remain even if the production cost for conventional glasses could drop to zero. In a recent report, the company contends that the adjustable lenses can correct vision with accuracy approaching that of those made with traditional methods. Now it’s mainly a question of refining the technology and taking it to the people who need it. The company has tested the eyeglasses in a successful field trial that involved several hundred people in Ghana, and it plans to ramp up production to 100,000 pairs per month by year’s end.
Silver is not alone in his efforts. Low Cost Eyeglasses-a Washington, DC-based company, founded by MIT doctoral candidate Saul Griffith and Harvard Business School graduate Neil Houghton-aims to bypass the need for qualified optometrists in developing countries by distributing an inexpensive eye-testing device that checks eyesight, as well as a plastic eyeglass mold that forms corrective lenses on site.
Both efforts are impressive and inspiring for their genuine innovation, their message about how much one person or group can do to instigate positive change, and, perhaps most of all, for the creative way they have tried to tackle a pressing global problem. Not only that, but it looks as though the two companies-even with their public-spirited missions-can become profitable businesses. Maybe their experiences can encourage the companies that sue one another over broad proprietary rights to tomorrow’s technology to elevate their goals and recognize that they have a choice about how and where they direct their prodigious research efforts.