Monday, January 04, 2010

Three groups compete to give vision to the world

Three different organizations are trying to provide vision to the world. Britain's AdSpecs has been at it for around 10 years, while two Dutch firms Focus on Vision and U-Specs are just getting started.

Each of the organizations are attempting to mass produce glasses at a low enough cost that they can be distributed to the poor around the world. The three groups use a couple of different technologies that can change the focus of the lenses, so that wearers can auto focus the glasses without using an optometrist.

From the New York Times, writer Douglas Heingartner compares the three outfits and the occasional competition to supply vision to the world.

The tangled provenance of the designs demonstrates the unspoken yet occasionally palpable sense of rivalry among the various camps.

“I view them as good friends,” Professor Silver, the inventor of AdSpecs, said. “We’re not competitors. I’m just rather keen on origins and facts being clearly stated.”

He said they all agreed that the developing world needed a “low-cost design that can be produced at very high volume,” conceding that “none of the enterprises around today can do that.”

But each camp is convinced that it has the best approach to supply the millions or even billions of inexpensive glasses the developing world needs.

Focus on Vision says its advantage is the unique injection-molding process that allows its Focusspec eyeglasses to be made cheaply. It was developed by a Dutch engineer, Ron Kok, who grew wealthy in the 1980s by streamlining the manufacture of compact discs and contact lenses.

Focus on Vision invited Mr. Kok to work that same magic on its glasses. “I saw immediately that you could make it simpler,” he said. “They’re designed to be easy and cheap to produce.”

The U-Specs team emphasizes its scientific pedigree. “We took more of an academic approach, or at least a scientific approach, rather than an entrepreneurial one,” said Sjoerd Hannema, who was in charge of the U-Specs project until the middle of 2009. “Having a university and an eye hospital behind it,” he said, “helps build recognition and authority around this project.”

Mr. Hannema now leads a nonprofit organization called Adaptive Eyewear, which is running a distribution project in Rwanda called Vision for a Nation. It uses a combination of U-Specs, a version of Professor Silver’s lenses and traditional reading glasses.

Although they are not made using Mr. Kok’s special production technique, supporters of U-Specs say they will ultimately cost about the same to produce as the Focusspec.

“It will be around one to two dollars, depending on the quantity,” Mr. Hannema said. “If you make a million glasses, then automatically your cost price goes down dramatically. But then the challenge is where are you going to bring those glasses? Ultimately the cost of distribution is what matters.”

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