Look past the words you’re reading on this screen or magazine.
What do you see?
An office vibrant and buzzing employees? A coffee shop with the sun peering in through the windows? A family member sitting next to you in the living room?
Now, close your left eye. Make a fist with your right hand and put it up in front of your right eye so that the fist blocks the central part of your vision, leaving you with a big black spot, only small slivers of sight coming from your peripheral. Imagine large, looming blindness in the dead center or your eye. Imagine scanning a sentence several times, trying to piece the letters together. Imagine the oddity of making “eye contact” with someone by looking at them out of the corner of your eye.
This is the image of Advanced Macular Degeneration.
If you’ve never heard of Advanced Macular Degeneration (AMD), then congratulations, but beware. Diagnosed to over 13 million Americans and 200 million people worldwide, this disease is a thief coming to a household near you.
"If you can find a story that explains how you created your mission, don’t let it go untold, unsung, unrepeated, unvisualized"
What part of your fortune would you trade to correct your vision?
If you were diagnosed with Advanced Macular Degeneration, would you do what over 13 million other American’s do? Would you visit several low-vision specialists before shelling out thousands of dollars for Laser Photocoagulationor anti-VEGFinjections into your eye every month?
According to research from the University of New York, sight is our most prided sense. Ask anyone who has started to lose theirs, and they will confirm. AMD (in America) is by-and-large an elderly disease. It changes the lives that baby-boomers have sacrificed for and robs them of their well earned golden years. During this time, seniors are supposed to have passed the stress of work and raising a family. The feet are supposed to kick up. Great novels have waited to be cracked. Sunsets by the sea are in need of viewership. Yet, AMDrobssenior’s ability to fully enjoy and engage in moments of relaxation and exploration. Imagine not being able to enjoy what you have worked so hard for; what you have built a lifetime waiting to enjoy.
This growing population of AMD patients is not contributing to society as they would like to be—they cannot volunteer at local nonprofits, churches, or schools. In fact, they often become a strain on their caretakers who are forced to take time off work, which causes even greater depression and retreat from society. Estimates of the global cost of visual impairment due to age-related macular degeneration are $343 billion, including $255 billion in direct health care costs.
Don’t worry. This is not a doomsday story.
One California technology startup with a mission to change the image of this disease has developed a corrective lens for patients with AMD. Their name says it all by combining Ocular, Tech, Rx – “Ocutrx.”
As it happens, solutions often begin with problems.
Ocutrx’s first patient, Former Brigadier General, Richard Freeman, was a man of many talents. One passion that was closest to his heart was for flying. During his 35-year-long Air Force career as a fighter jet pilot, Gen. Freeman had completed over 30,000 flying hours. Just a few years after he was diagnosed with AMD, Gen. Freemen went from breaking the sound barer to an utter void –unable to read the paper or email his friends and colleagues, an inability to distinguish the faces of his grandchildren, difficulty performing daily tasks on his own, and eventually, total seclusion and absolute depression.
The pivotal moment happened when the sons of Gen Freeman (Michael and Mitch Freeman) bought their father a Samsung curved television. He sat down to watch a football game and all of a sudden Gen. Freeman could see. There was a caveat: he couldn’t see the 50-yard line, but he could see the sidelines and goal posts (and the cheerleaders)more clearly.
The brothers (who were already video experts [I’ll explain in detail soon]) pondered.
Why could their dad see better looking into a curved screen? They realized more visual information was being shown in his peripheral, where he did still have visual acuity, outside the area of his blind spot.
Michael and Mitch immediately went to work building a device that would, in essence, do what the curved TV had done by putting more of the real word picture into areas of his eye where he could see.
Of course, it’s incredibly more complicated than it seems.
The Freeman family are not novices to inspiring innovation. In the early ’90s, they invented streaming mobile video, distributed it to news stations, won a couple of Emmys, and are still equipped with the technical prowess to shock Ophthalmologists who have been scratching their heads over AMD correction for decades.
Michael and Mitch assembled the same hardware and software team in Tulsa, Oklahoma (the former oil capital of the world), who were responsible for helping them create a mobile video. Skip forward three years, multiple dozens of prototypes, over one million lines of code, collaborations with a dozen of the world’s leading medical professionals, partnerships with influential technology leaders, two issued patents (with over 30 pending), and one clinical study, and today, we are closer than ever to having Oculenz™. Oculenz is a beautifully designed, state-of-the-art Augmented Reality headset, and it’s touted to revolutionize the AMD and low-vision landscape.
Patient studies have shown all subjects were able to read at a standard reading pace, at 30 points; with some reading down to 10-point type in just one setting wearing the Oculenz.
As Ocutrx’s Chief of Communication, the journey with our founders has been enlightening. My background is in the fine arts, using the tactics of poetry and prose to reach (and influence) broader audiences. T.S. Elliot was a banker. Wallace Stevens was in insurance. I hope to someday be known as a kind of renaissance woman – someone who can traverse the surface level and find meaning in each part of this process. Being able to dissect technical terms to our investors and translate medical terms to our tech team has been an adventure.
Our team is still speaking capital and plans to commercialize in October of this year. For the last two years, our team has been traveling to tech, med, and VC conferences — many of us staying in the same AirBnB’s. For instance, in Barcelona, I looked up saw an iconic snapshot of a startup: surge protectors spiraling around the living room, equipment charging on the dining room table, cold pizza on the kitchen counter, hot coffee in the pot, several of us working on parts of a PowerPoint that will be due in a few hours. I’ve been witness to Michael and Mitch (the founding brothers) sitting in the back of a car in California with huge cones of Gelato, debating ideas about how to increase resolution or which chipset to use. I imagine this same scene had out thousands of times since they were boys. Only now the stakes are higher.
Nearly everyone who has completed something noteworthy — from Einstein to Jobs — accredit their success (in part) to following their intuition. We all have a fairy inside, trying to guide us. The success ofOcutrx stems from the incredible perception of our founder’s intuitions. This advice nugget has been uttered by so many people more eloquent and quotable than I, but I believe that everyone was born with a purpose, and thankfully several people have turned their backs from the status quo and doubled down on their individual thing — everything from the blown glass that I’m sipping my vodka and soda from; to the aqueducts that are carrying rainwater to the city center as I wait for the storm to clear; to the headrests in the airplane that fold in on the sides to support my sleepy head on my next flight. Thankfully people are creative beings who give their lives to their creations.
Secondly, my advice to entrepreneurs is: be hyper-specific about your audience. In a way, Ocutrx was simple. We had a mission to correct AMD and focused relentlessly on this goal. We’ve spoken to patients, we’ve surveyed low-vision clinics, we’ve hired the world’s best retinal surgeons as consultants, we partner with the tech giants, we ask limitless questions, and we contemplate hard on the answers. We know who is in our market, we know why they make buying decisions, we know their budget, we know products like ours they’ve purchased in the past, and we know their frustrations. For instance, we know VR will not work but AR will. We know it has to be completely wireless and tether-less so the patient can walk around and complete tasks normally. We know how to re-encourage them—and even though we don’t even have a product on the market yet—having this information at the ready has impressed investors and kept us focused to the point of absorption.
(In another way, Ocutrx was incredibly complicated. While AMD was always our target, we did find several other industries that could be helped by this AR headset, including the military, oil and gas, gaming, surgery visualization, and more. So, our new plan became leaning into verticals that are funded.)
Break a leg out there, Starupers. Remember, it takes passion to evoke passion in others. If you can find a story that explains how you created your mission, don’t let it go untold, unsung, unrepeated, unvisualized. I can’t wait to hear (and see) it.