Alumnus’ ski trip inspires an insight that could help give the world’s poor better vision
The idea for a potentially game-changing way to help poor people see better hit Philip Staehelin as he floated above a peaceful snowscape on a ski lift in the Czech mountains.
It’s unsurprising that Staehelin (pronounced STAYlen) gets plenty of good ideas regularly. “My father was a professor of cellular biology at CU … he was also always curious … [and] I learned my curiosity from him, and then squared it,” says Staehelin (’91 intl. affairs/econ.).
What’s more, Staehelin’s passion for innovation has made him well-known and respected in the business circles of Prague (his home since 1994) and Central Europe. Today he advises many companies and startups and co-owns Central Europe’s oldest startup accelerator, plus he holds an MBA from INSEAD, often ranked the top business school in the world.
But it’s CU Boulder’s liberal arts education he credits for kick starting his creativity. “It’s all about constantly challenging the status quo … thinking how something can be done differently. It gives you a better chance to become a creative rule breaker that can recreate the world around us.”
His idea clearly had that recreate-the-world feel to it and it could transform the entire eye-care model for the world’s poorest people.
Staehelin had some real insight. He got glasses at age 9 and suffered from poor vision until he had laser surgery about 15 years ago. “I went from roughly 20/500 to perfect vision—which was life changing,” he says.
Then about 10 years after that surgery, his vision deteriorated to 20/40, and he needed glasses again. It was through that lens the big idea came into focus on that ski lift in early 2015.
“I don't like to wear my glasses under my ski goggles, so I just went without—which isn't a big deal when you have 20/40 vision. But there was a point during the day when the moguls got a bit hard to see, and as I was riding back up the mountain … I thought it would be cool if I could just buy some off-the-shelf lenses to pop into my ski goggles to improve my vision. I thought just a bit of improvement would be good enough, because I didn't need perfect vision for skiing.”
So the idea started as a cheap solution for prescription ski goggles. Nifty for sure, but after a few more runs, it struck Staehelin that "good enough" might address the developing world's vision problem—what some call the biggest health crisis you’ve never heard of. The World Health Organization says untreated vision problems cost the global economy $200 billion annually in lost productivity, and the Vision Loss Expert Group says 1.1 billion people need eyeglasses but don’t have them: people unable to drive, read, work or just enjoy the orange glow of a setting sun.
When Staehelin got home, he did some research and calculated he’d only need five lenses to give up to 90 percent of people "good enough" vision, i.e. getting people to at least 20/40 vision.
“I was excited, and I literally felt like I had an obligation to society to give it my best shot.”
It would take his best shot—and patience. After more than three years and plenty of design failures, he finally had his ultra-cheap, one-size-fits-all frames—and his social enterprise, DOT Glasses (dotglasses.org), was born.
During the first field trial in Angola in August of 2018, the team saw just how much the glasses could change lives. They met Samuel, a young man who had lost his job—literally the previous week—because his eyesight had worsened so much that he could no longer do his work.
They tested his vision and fitted him with the first pair of DOT Glasses—a 3-D printed prototype.
“We felt good that things worked as we thought they would,” Staehelin says.
But they felt even better when they ran into Samuel on the street a few days later, purely by chance, wearing his new glasses.
“He was incredibly happy because he had found another job. He was absolutely beaming. Just telling that story gives me chills. It was the first realization after more than three years of often lonely work that we were really on to something that could change people’s lives in a truly tangible way.”
By late summer of 2019, about 1,000 people like Samuel were wearing DOT Glasses. And after a recent commercial launch, its pipeline of sales is approaching 1 million eyeglasses with strong interest from partners all around the world.
Staehelin’s vision for the future: fit millions of glasses annually.
“I want to prove that a 700-year-old technology like eyeglasses can still be disruptive with innovative thinking.”
Some might call that visionary.