This Startup Uses Smartphones To Disrupt Your Eye Doctor

Blink uses smartphone-powered machines to generate eyeglass prescriptions at home. Yes, it's Uber but for eye exams.

If you're wearing prescription glasses to read this story, chances are you got them by visiting a bland, inconvenient optometrist office. In a bid to make that process easier and cheaper, a new startup wants to use smartphone-based equipment to give consumers professional, on-demand eye exams at home.

The service, Blink, joins a wave of young businesses, most notably Warby Parker, employing technology in various ways to upend the $64 billion spectacles industry. It's a market long dominated by a single giant, Luxottica, whose brands include Ray-Ban, Oakley, Oliver Peoples, and Vogue Eyewear, and whose 7,000 retail stores include LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Ilori, and Sunglass Hut. That combined presence helped the company post a record 7.65 billion euros, or about $8.9 billion, in revenue last year.

While Warby Parker is focused on selling frames and filling prescriptions online, Blink seeks to be the other half of the equation: getting the lens prescription. The startup, which launched Wednesday, sends teams of technicians to people's homes and offices to measure their eyesight. Their equipment, designed as lower-cost, portable alternatives to traditional optometry devices, is in part powered by smartphones and based on research spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By having trained assistants collect raw measurements in the field, Blink frees a separate team of optometrists to review, analyze, and ultimately approve the prescriptions from afar (customers can then buy the actual frames and lenses wherever they want). Blink aims to tackle a discrepancy outlined in a 2008 report from the Vision Council: An estimated 130 million American adults had not had their eyes examined in the previous year, compared to 100 million who said they had.

"There's a problem here," David Schafran, Blink's chief product officer and founder, told BuzzFeed News. "People aren't going to the doctor. And I think a lot of people's hypothesis for why that is, including ours, is it's not convenient enough and it's not a good enough experience holistically to spend time and money to go do that."

Blink, whose parent company, EyeNetra, is backed by $4 million from Khosla Ventures and Khosla Impact, has quietly treated some 500 patients over the past year, Schafran said. For now, it operates on a very limited basis, exclusively in New York City. It does not provide contact lens prescriptions or accept insurance for its $75 visits. It has just two optometrists — including Schafran's father — and five "visioneers," or technicians. These assistants, who aren't required to have a medical background, train for at least two weeks before seeing patients, Schafran said.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these technicians aren't equipped to treat aspects of eye health beyond vision correction, although they are supposed to refer patients to local doctors if worrisome symptoms emerge. All of which means this is a company suited, at least right now, more for young, healthy people with relatively stable eyes than it is for older people or people at risk from eye diseases.

"A thorough eye exam requires the right equipment, which you can't get from an inexpensive, portable kit," Nicola Brandolese, president of retail optical in the Americas for Luxottica, argued in an email. "We're fanatical about getting it right for our customers, which is why LensCrafters has invested tens of millions of dollars in our digital eye exam technology to not only be able to determine a precise prescription, but to detect the risk of serious eye health conditions including cataracts, diabetes and macular degeneration. And on average, the cost of our eye exams are comparable to, in some cases less than, this in-home service."

The smartphone's camera, computer, and network power much of Blink's jargony equipment. A phone clicks into a device called the Netra, which measures the optical power of your eyes through an interactive test, and the Netrometer, which detects the prescription of an existing pair of glasses, and then wirelessly sends those measurements to an optometrist. A third machine, the Netropter, allows patients to try out prescriptions. All these inventions, Blink says, can replace up to $20,000 of immobile optometric equipment. If a prescription ends up incorrect, a patient can get a free retest, the company says.

"It does take out some of the art of the prescription, of finding a prescription that a patient would benefit from using conventional technology in an office setting," Dr. Mark Blumenkranz, professor and chair of ophthalmology at Stanford University, told BuzzFeed News. He co-founded DigiSight Technologies, whose iPhone app helps screen for eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

"That may be fine, or it may be that people find that — especially if you're going to pay several hundred dollars or more for a pair of glasses — that you want to have somebody having spent time with you under a more controlled condition," Blumenkranz said. "That remains to be seen. But they're certainly pushing the envelope here."

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