Victoria inventor sets sights on better vision for the poor

A Victoria inventor has a launched a $200,000 crowdsourcing campaign to bring better vision to the masses.

Jeff Widderich has developed a prototype for glasses called Vision Dots that he says can be manufactured for under $1 per pair and made available to the poor around the world.

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“It’s so simple I can’t see it not working,” said Widderich.

He undertook the task of developing an affordable eyecare system that could be delivered to the poorest corners of the world after reading about the cost of trying to improve eyesight and the extent of the problem. “There are more than one billion people in the world who need glasses today and as many as 750 million have no chance to get glasses,” Widderich said.

His solution is a six-piece, do-it-yourself easily assembled pair of glasses.

Widderich has designed lens holders that form to the eyesocket, can accept lenses of any strength and are tied together by a fastener and a string that loops behind the ear.

He envisions a buffet-dinner styled dispensing system where people who need glasses line up with a plate and take two of the lens holders, a fastener, string and a choice from 40 different lens strengths that suit their needs. They can choose different strengths in each eye.

Once the wearer has the right lenses for their eyes, they snap them together and put them on.

The lenses he has designed to fit in the holders come in 40 different strengths that range from plus-75 to plus-375 and minus-50 to minus-600 and should cover the needs of an estimated 80 per cent of those who need glasses.

His prototype was made using Camosun College’s 3-D printer, but Widderich said the rest of them will be made by injection moulding to cut costs to about seven cents per holder.

Lenses will cost 40 to 50 cents on average, keeping the total cost of one pair below $1.

He’s not the only person trying to solve a growing global problem.

The World Health Organization and the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, a firm led by atomic physicist Joshua Silver who has also developed a system to bring eyesight to the poor, have recognized there are more than a billion people in need of eyecare.

Silver, who has spent millions on his plan over the years, has designed a pair of adjustable glasses that use a transparent silicone fluid developed by Dow Corning that allows the wearer to change the power of the lens by removing or adding fluid to a sac between the lenses.

Silver has distributed tens of thousands of these glasses around the world and has goals to hit the billion mark and cut cost per pair to about $1 by 2020. For now, the cost remains about $20 per pair, according to a recent article in the Economist.

Widderich said that’s just too much for the poorest, who he hopes will not have to pay for the eyecare but rather would be taken care of by their governments or organizations like the Red Cross. “[My] idea is down to the pure basics and down to under $1,” he said. “And the economic impact would be enormous.”

A study published last fall by the Bulletin of the World Health Organization suggested there is a productivity loss of more than $200 billion a year because there are more than 700 million people living with uncorrected refractive error.

That study seemed to make the case that the $28 billion estimated cost of investing in eye exams, providing glasses and training 65,000 optometrists, ophthalmologists and other eye-care professionals would be worth it. But Widderich points out his design cuts those costs considerably as it does not require the thousands of opticians — those needing glasses can help themselves.

Widderich sees Vision Dots as a two-tiered business that could sell into the “real world,” but he said the main thrust is to help the poorest in the world improve their sight.

Part of the crowdsourcing funding would allow him to run test dispensary sites in poor countries to see what works, what doesn’t and where problems can arise.

“We need to do a dry run, see if there are issues with people taking six or more lenses, if people aren’t capable of putting them together, or if there are other problems,” he said, noting issues in some countries could mean governments taking a dim view of aid.

“I’m not naive,” he said.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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