Astronaut Ron Garan told Fast Company recently, “From the International Space Station’s point of view, anything that could make our research more efficient, effective, and compelling is important.”
What could be more important than being able to see clearly during a space mission?
NASA’s got plenty of challenges to tackle for continued space exploration (hello plutonium fuel shortage), but the astronauts’ vision is a big one.
A recent study reported that 60% of 300 astronauts surveyed by NASA experienced a gradual blurring of eyesight after six-month shifts aboard the International Space Station. The damage is significant enough to concern NASA executives about the viability of long missions, such as a multi-year trip to Mars.
And that doesn’t even take into account the age factor. Dr. C. Robert Gibson, vision consultant to NASA Space Medicine, points out that the average age of astronauts today is 48. It’s prime time for presbyopia–that pesky condition that plagues almost everyone over 40– which makes it hard to see things up close.
“Astronauts must be able to perform tasks that presbyopia can make difficult, such as viewing overhead instrument panels and computers in an enclosed micro-gravity environment,” explains Dr. Gibson. In other words, being farsighted is tough enough without having to focus on a computer screen while floating upside down.
In what he calls a “reverse TANG” development, Dr. Stephen Kurtin was creating a solution for the average earthbound Joe or Jane. His owlish Superfocus glasses were designed to help the estimated 65 million presbyopia (that is, farsighted) patients in the U.S. It was a virtually untapped $10 billion market that Dr. Kurtin says has been ripe for innovation since 1866, when the first patent was granted for an adjustable lens.
The problem was that those early adjustable lenses and subsequent bi-focals, tri-focals, and progressive lenses never really provided the wearer a full range of vision. Even LASIK surgery can’t correct presbyopia.
Even though it’s such a pervasive condition, Dr. Kurtin admits that even he –a specialist in the invention, development, and licensing of optical and electronics products with over 30 U.S. patents–spent nearly 20 years to bring Superfocus glasses to market.
“This is really a new category,” Dr. Kurtin explains, because Superfocus glasses have two sets of lenses, one flexible and one firm, with optical fluid in between. The wearer moves the slider on the bridge across the nose, which pushes the fluid to alter the focus of the flexible lens. The result is plain, clear sight with no zones or lines to distort the field of view.
Thanks to his time as CEO of another company that he successfully took public, “Early developments on Superfocus were funded by the Bank of Barbara [his wife] and Steve,” Dr. Kurtin says. But because there wasn’t a natural licensee, Dr. Kurtin says the only way to bring the glasses to market was to start a brand-new company.
Superfocus LLC officially launched in 2009, with Adrian Koppes as CEO and cofounder. Dr. Kurtin calls Koppes “Mr. LASIK” because of his tenure with Chiron Vision, where he led the globalization of the procedure. Since then, Dr. Kurtin says Superfocus LLC has attracted funding by A-list angel investors such as Gordon Binder, the former CEO of Amgen, and Superfocus glasses have been sported by the likes of comedian Penn Gillette and Broadway actress Rita Moreno.
With prices starting at under $700 per pair, Superfocus glasses cost about the same as a pair of progressive lenses, but the price hasn’t been prohibitive. Nor has the Harry Potter-esque design, which Dr. Kurtin says can’t be changed because the lenses must be circular for optimum focus. He asserts that 90 million pairs of prescription glasses sold every year and a half are to correct presbyopia. “We’ve sold thousands and thousands of pairs and had 100% month-over-month gains. Not a lot of startups get that kind of growth,” Dr. Kurtin observes.
Superfocus glasses were worn by NASA Astronaut Ben Alvin Drew aboard Discovery (STS-133) this past February. Now the sky is apparently quite literally the limit for Dr. Kurtin’s innovation.