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The Vision Thing

An inventor’s philanthropic mission is a lesson to companies that squander resources on patent lawsuits.

Patent lawyers, like undertakers, generally have the decorum not to gloat when business is good, but, boy, these days it must be hard for them to keep quiet. Lately, there seem to be more patent lawsuits under way or threatened than at any other time I can remember. And that leads me to wonder, Don’t the companies filing these lawsuits have anything better to do?

The obvious answer is yes, they do. Despite difficult economic times, today’s high tech companies need to remember their core mission: to bring better products and services to market. Innovation and problem solving play central roles. Equally important is how these organizations pick the problems they will address. With that in mind, I interrupt my normally scheduled program-exposing intellectual-property shenanigans-to bring you a hopeful message about creative problem solving.

As a case in point, I give you physicist Joshua Silver. A University of Oxford experimentalist and self-described “tinkerer,” Silver had a successful academic career in atomic physics, as well as consulting work for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. With a good working knowledge of optics and, as he says, “the hopes of making piles of money,” he undertook some commercial research in the mid-1990s with cosmetics maker Este Lauder: development of a cheap mirror a user could adjust to magnify his or her reflection.

While he was experimenting with prototypes of mirrors and lenses, Silver found a way to adjust the lenses’ focus. By varying the amount of silicone oil between two flexible membranes, Silver realized he could effectively change their curvature. The potential for his research hit home when he took off his own glasses (Silver is myopic) and discovered he could see clearly through his crude lenses.

At about the same time, Silver came across astounding information that helped him refocus his own research goals: an estimated one billion people in the developing world have uncorrected vision. They are nearsighted, farsighted, or in need of reading glasses, and they cannot afford or don’t have access to eyeglasses. Up to half of Americans and Europeans wear corrective lenses, but few people in the developing world do.

To his immense credit, Silver realized his research on lenses could help solve a huge global health problem. He decided to stop working for the cosmetics firm and set his sights higher. He would develop cheap adjustable eyeglasses and bring corrected vision to the enormous number of people in need. Silver recognized that a company set up to deliver these eyeglasses could both pursue a laudable goal and be financially viable. “Once I saw I could do something about this problem, I came to realize that I really should go out and give it a go,” he says.

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.

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