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Imagine that you’re nearsighted. For many Americans, that’s not hard to do. Around 30 percent of people in the United States are nearsighted, and for most of them, the solution is simple: go to an eye doctor and get some glasses or contact lenses. That way, they can drive, read street signs, and recognize friends walking down the street.

For most of the world, it’s not so easy. About 90 percent of visually impaired people live in low-income settings, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And often, there are no eye doctors or eyeglasses available. In Rwanda, for example, there are about 10.5 million people—and 14 vision specialists. Without access to an eye exam or glasses, simple nearsightedness becomes debilitating.

Now two College of Engineering graduates, Yaopeng Zhou (ENG’05,’09) and Marc Albanese (ENG’99,’03), are trying to change those statistics. They’ve invented a handheld device called Smart Vision One (SVOne) that scans a person’s eyes, instantly determines whether he or she needs glasses, and decides what the prescription should be. Bolstered by a $1 million 2013 Powerful Answers award from Verizon, their company, Smart Vision Labs, is poised to start manufacturing and delivering SVOne devices this year.

“This could be big,” says Thomas Bifano, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering and director of BU’s Photonics Center, who advised both Zhou and Albanese on their theses at BU and is now on the Smart Vision Labs board of directors. “If this caught on, it could be so cheap that everyone has one, like a thermometer. It has the potential to be hugely disruptive.”

The device is a small block of plastic, a little larger than a deck of playing cards, which slips over an iPhone. To perform an exam, one person holds the device (technically known as a “wavefront aberrometer”) up to a patient’s eye, and presses a button. Light shines into the eye, bouncing off the retina and back out the front of the eye. Curves and imperfections in a patient’s eye will cause beams of light to bend, bouncing out of the front at slightly different angles. A sensor collects this information, the computer in the iPhone interprets it, and the result is a prescription specific to that eye. (Unless, of course, the person has perfect vision.)

Traditionally, optometrists have determined eyeglass prescriptions by having patients look through a phoropter, a bulky device on a swivel arm containing multiple lenses. A patient looks through lenses of different strengths and tells the optometrist which ones make his or her vision the sharpest. “It’s a big, clunky, subjective measure,” says Albanese. “What we have is a small, portable device that offers you an objective number. It just gives you the answer. All you have to do is look straight.”

Albanese says that the device could work well for young children, who are generally not known for their cooperation during eye exams.

The genesis for the device came over a decade ago, when both Zhou and Albanese were working on their graduate degrees in electrical engineering at ENG. Bifano had worked for years developing “adaptive optics”—tiny, adjustable telescope mirrors that could help astronomers correct for atmospheric haze and see distant objects more distinctly. Then the technology took a twist. Bifano was invited to join a team from Schepens Eye Research Institute that was working with a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use adaptive optics for a different application: taking better resolution photos of the mouse retina.

“All the major eye diseases affect the cells in the retina,” says Bifano. “If you have a disease like, say, diabetic retinopathy, your capillaries get clogged up, and you get little microaneurysms and new, leaky vessels forming in the retina. Seeing these in the early stage of disease would help diagnosis and treatment. But because your eye is misshapen, the physician can’t see the cellular structures in your eye. They just see a gray mishmash.”

In summer 2002, Bifano chose Zhou and Albanese to join the team at Schepens and help develop the technology for mice. “The eye is a window into all these health issues,” says Albanese. “Our goal was to see the blood flow in the retina, but it’s not a clear optical path.”

Eventually Zhou and Albanese wrapped up their work on the project and went their separate ways. After working for a while, each landed, at different times, at New York University (NYU) to work on an MBA. In early 2012, Zhou started thinking again of his work at Schepens. He had read an article about billions of people worldwide suffering with poor vision, with no access to an optometrist. He met up with his old friend Albanese at a bar in Union Square, and they discussed the problem over beers. “And Yaopeng said, ‘Why not use the same optical measurements that we used at Schepens to give people prescriptions?’” Albanese recalls.

In the intervening years, technology had changed to their advantage. During their work under Bifano, they had used a $5,000 Dell computer and a camera that cost the same. “Now a $500 iPhone has basically the same camera and processing ability,” says Albanese. “You have a computer and a camera in your pocket that can do most of the work for you. It just all came together.”

The two decided to collaborate on the project, and they formed a company. While they worked on optical problems (like finding the perfect light source and screening out unwanted reflections from the front of the eye), they also started raising money. In 2013, they won the $75,000 Ira Leon Rennert Prize in NYU’s New Venture Competition. That was followed by a $100,000 grant from, and then in January 2014 the $1 million award from Verizon.

“That helped a lot,” says Albanese. “Yaopeng had been working on a prototype, but nothing helps a prototype like a million dollars.” The money allowed them to buy a 3-D printer and hire a full-time mechanical engineer, a software engineer, and also a “director of social venture” (and director of sales) to help them bring the device to the developing world.

They now have 11 working devices—all handmade—and they will soon start production in Boston for 100 more. They are now accepting preorders for the SVOne and expect the first orders to ship out soon. The device costs $3,950 with an iPhone, compared to similar devices on the market, which cost between $15,000 and $40,000.

While their primary market is American optometrists (their first sale was to an optometrist running a Pearle Vision center in Philadelphia), their ultimate goal is to make the device widely available in less affluent countries. Albanese and Greg Van Kirk, the company’s director of social venture, envision a fleet of “optometrist entrepreneurs,” who use the device to prescribe and sell glasses in the developing world, creating jobs and saving sight.

“I’m really excited to see this thing go,” says Bifano. “These two guys took what we taught them at BU and just ran with it. It’s been a thrill for me to see them build something from scratch. They just buckled down and made it happen.”

A version of this story originally appeared on the BU Research website.