For 2.5 billion people around the world, that’s not the case. They have no way to get vision tests and no place to pick up eyeglasses. For those with severe vision loss, glasses might not even help much. This severely limits their options for schooling, employment and independent living.
Two of YPO’s Global Impact Award regional finalists this year are addressing these problems in groundbreaking ways. James Chen’s philanthropic initiatives and Sam Ifergan’s tech startup are helping millions of people see clearly for the very first time.
Helping one-third of our planet’s people to see better
Venture philanthropist and international businessman Chen has been working to make vision care accessible and affordable for over 15 years. He’s Chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, a family-owned manufacturing business. Chen also created three nonprofit organizations, and he’s written a book to educate and advocate for global vision care.
Chen’s visionary journey began in 2005 when he co-founded Adlens as a charitable initiative to address the need for affordable eyeglasses. “I grew up in Nigeria and for a large part of my career I’ve been doing work in emerging Asia. It always struck me how few people there had eyeglasses,” he says. “In the back of my mind, I thought it was an access problem, but I didn’t know the scale of it. When I came across an Oxford physics professor who showed me glasses that allowed a user to change the power of the lenses, I instantly knew that could be a game changer.”
When Adlens launched, the company focused on creating inexpensive plastic eyeglasses anyone can wear and adjust to the correct focus simply by turning a knob on the frame. Because the lenses aren’t custom made for individuals, they are ideal for mass distribution in developing nations.
Adlens now pioneers adaptive focus lenses that react more like the human eye. These will help address presbyopia issues — a common condition acquired with aging. This new technology will help make it easier for people to view content in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) environments as well.
In 2011, Chen founded Vision for a Nation to make eye care more accessible to the world’s poorest communities. That eventually led to the creation of Clearly in 2016 — a worldwide campaign to inspire innovation and promote greater awareness of vision issues. In 2018, Chen’s book, “Clearly: How a 700 Year Old Invention Can Change the World Forever,” was published to help support that effort.
Chen talks frequently about the obstacles to providing vision care in developing countries, referring to them as the four Ds: diagnosis, distribution, dollars and demand. “You can easily get a diagnosis at the corner optical shop in the developed world, but those don’t exist in developing nations,” he explains. “We also have to tackle logistics of getting lenses to a consumer, both in terms of thin distribution channels and the costs of customization.
“In the developed world, for the most part, the model for vision care is private enterprise. That works well in a high resource environment but falls over in a low resource environment. This is a market failure, so there is a real need for government engagement. The demand issue is that people who have never had access to vision care don’t know what they don’t know. If nobody in their village has ever had their eyesight corrected, people just accept vision trouble as part of the cycle of life.”
Vision care at scale: Rwanda becomes a test case for
When Chen launched Vision for a Nation, it focused exclusively on Rwanda. The organization worked closely with Rwanda’s Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, to launch the program in 2012. “She was our government champion and helped us to break through a lot of barriers,” Chen reveals. “Two things she did early on were critical: She got us an exception from import duties on eyeglasses, and she allowed nurses to do vision screening instead of just doctors.”
Vision for a Nation also commissioned a new training protocol so nurses could be trained to do a “good enough” screening. When patients need glasses, they can purchase those immediately for USD1.50 per pair. Now smartphones with a hardware attachment can be used to take images of the retina, the image then uploaded to the cloud for expert diagnosis by an AI app capable of detecting a range of eye diseases as well as possibly serious medical conditions like diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and even malaria.
Clearly, this can work around the world
Over 2 million Rwandans have been helped by Vision for a Nation, which has expanded to Ghana and has plans to help developing countries in Asia. However, the World Health Organization estimates that there are at least one billion people on the planet with uncorrected poor vision; others estimate the figure could be more than double. Chen knows that tackling this will also require action from governments and many more philanthropic organizations working together. The desire to get more of them on board is what led to Chen and a team of interdisciplinary experts to develop the Clearly campaign.
“There are two key things we hope to achieve with Clearly: advocacy and evidence-based research,” Chen says. “We already funded a peer-reviewed study of tea pickers in India that shows when you provide vision correction, productivity increases by about 22 percent. That’s like an extra day of work every week!” Clearly is now working on studies related to factory productivity, educational outcomes and driver safety.
“When I started this journey, I didn’t even know the scale of the problem; 15 years later I’m working on something that could help improve the lives of one-third of the world’s population,” he adds. “I wake up every morning and say, ‘this is pretty cool!’”
Seeing for the very first time
“Four years ago, somebody said to us, ‘you have to go see this company. They make blind people see again.’ I didn’t believe it,” says Ifergan about eSight, the trailblazing Toronto company he later joined as chairman. “We thought it would be a big waste of time, but when we saw it, we said ‘Holy cow! This really works.’”
When Ifergan met the team at eSight, he had a deep well of expertise the company needed. He previously co-founded and exited several tech companies and had founded iGan Partners in 2013 to focus on technological advancements in health care. It is now Canada’s largest healthcare venture capital investor.
Although Ifergan was on the board of multiple companies, he decided to wade in deep with eSight. “I became chairman because I believe in the cause,” he states. “When children can see for the first time ever or people are able to see their spouses for the first time in 20 years, it’s incredibly powerful. Our mission is everybody has the right to see and eSight could help the lion’s share of the legally blind market.”
The eSight device looks somewhat like a VR headset. It can fit over a user’s glasses or prescription lenses can be crafted and installed directly into the unit. A high-speed, high-resolution 21.5 MP camera captures and projects algorithm-modified, real-time footage onto two OLED screens in front of a user’s eyes and at optical infinity. The modified image is focused to get parts of the eye to work again.
The wearer uses a remote control to adjust color, contrast, brightness and zoom. That makes it easy to switch from reading, watching TV or participating in outdoor activities. There is no lag time for projected images and users can even capture photos and video with the device.
Macular degeneration is the most common condition that can be helped by eSight, but the device can help those with conditions resulting from more than 50 eye diseases.
Government, philanthropic and business collaborations
eSight launched its pre-commercial product in 2017, and it was named one of TIME’s 25 Best Inventions of 2017 in Healthcare. The company is now prepping for its first full commercial rollout in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Persian Gulf countries. Ifergan estimates that 250 million people across the globe could use an eSight device, with 50 million just in the G20.
“We’re ready to go in a big way to change people’s lives,” he says. “We have kids going back to school and reading books when they were previously only reading braille. We have people who were unemployed but are now back to work. People using the device can do almost anything except drive.” Last year, a 13-year-old who is legally blind was able to shoot hoops with the Harlem Globetrotters while wearing an eSight device.
The biggest obstacles to widespread adoption are device costs and approvals by healthcare organizations. eSight recently reduced its price from USD9,500 to USD5,950 to encourage more public and private institutions to cover the cost. The company also helps would-be buyers find funding sources.
“We’re making headway with governments and winning battles with insurance companies,” Ifergan reveals. “Why put people on disability when they could go back to work with eSight?”
Last November, eSight persuaded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cover the cost of devices and has identified 130,000 legally blind veterans who could benefit. The company is working to develop channel partners, such as ophthalmologists, to help with fittings.
“We’re also reaching out to corporations because they have a social responsibility to hire people who are legally blind,” Ifergan says. “Many of those people have been isolated from the world, but now that they can see, they’re energized and motivated workers. Some companies have started to hire them and cover eSight devices in their insurance plans.”
During the 2019 holiday season, eSight worked with businessman and philanthropist Michael Dell to enable blind kids in Austin, Texas, to see The Nutcracker. “Dell is a big supporter of the ballet, so he wanted to give kids a chance to see it for the first time,” Ifergan shares. eSight has had some success reaching out to professional sports teams to create similar programs and is expanding those efforts across North America.
When Ifergan starts describing what the future holds for eSight, it sounds almost miraculous: “Let’s say your mother is living alone and she falls. Our next generation device will be able to alert you that she fell and let you see what she sees.”
Ifergan and Chen are making an impact that crosses cultures and borders. Both believe that eyesight is a human right and are innovating previously unforeseen ways to help people across the globe to see better.