Tech Firm’s Powerful Vision Brings Sight to the Legally Blind

A woman uses eSight’s headset to watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking at an event in November. Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Many small businesses establish vision statements that detail their objectives and strategies. Toronto-based eSight Corp., however, gives the concept new meaning.

The company, which makes and sells sophisticated electronic glasses that restore sight to the legally blind, is committed to making blindness history. That mission permeates its research efforts, sales culture and long-term business strategy.

“We’re able, as an organization, to set a vision to live in a world where everyone can see, and to execute that vision in a nimble and pragmatic way,” says Jeffrey Fenton, the company’s director of communications. This mission guides the affordability, distribution, technology and international strategies that have brought eSight attention from around the world.

The company was started in Ottawa in 2006 by Conrad Lewis, an electrical engineer who pledged to restore sight to his two legally blind sisters. He spent seven years developing the breakthrough technology, which consists of a headset loaded with digital cameras and electronics that capture and enhance what users see, then projects it onto screens near their eyes.

Starting in 2013, the company released two beta versions of the glasses, which were somewhat large and clunky but nevertheless allowed users to see and independently carry out activities of daily living. Last year it produced the eSight 3, named by Time magazine as one of the 25 best inventions of 2017. This sleeker, lighter version of the headset has improved battery life and image quality.

“They see what the sighted can,” says Mr. Fenton, noting that the device has been clinically validated for use in 86 per cent of all cases of vision loss (it does not work for profound blindness). It has been registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and inspected by Health Canada, he says.

Today the private company, which is backed by high-net-worth individuals, family funds and two venture-capital firms, has 100 employees in Toronto, Ottawa and California. More than 20 per cent of its work force is legally blind, says Mr. Fenton.

One barrier to widespread adoption of the device is its $9,995 (U.S.) price tag. This was reduced from the original $15,000, but it remains out of reach for many. The company has campaigned for governments and insurers to cover the product, pointing out that it improves users’ health and well-being and helps them return to work.

A major part of eSight’s strategy is advocacy, including an affordability program that helps individuals pay for the devices through flexible financing, grants, bursaries and discounts for clinical study participation. Customers can benefit from a special crowd-funding platform, and eSight helps them with outreach to employers, community groups and other organizations that might bear some of the cost.

“The idea is to find any and all potential sources of funding,” Mr. Fenton says.

In the past year eSight has expanded its business from Canada and the United States to 40 countries through hand-picked distributors who help get the word out about the technology. Sales figures are not public. Customers can try before they buy, experiencing the headset in their homes for 15 days.

Optical magnifiers and other devices have existed for decades to help patients with low vision, but eSight is “a true game-changer,” says Robert Devenyi, ophthalmologist-in-chief and director of retinal services at the University Health Network in Toronto.

He adds that eSight “has an impressive work ethos. All employees are with the company because they truly believe they’ll make a difference in the lives of patients with low vision.” Meanwhile it’s dealing with the “significant barrier” of price, Dr. Devenyi says, noting that the key to finding success in the field of assistive technologies “is to identify a niche need and to develop a unique and brilliant solution.”

Mr. Fenton advises similar companies to “act small but think big,” and to personally get to know users. “We’re not just selling a commodity, we’re selling a life-changing technology.”

The company remains guided by its core vision, “that everyone deserves to see,” Mr. Fenton says. “Thousands of lives have been changed” by eSight to date, he adds. “It’s been awe-inspiring for us, and humbling as well.”

Original at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/tech-firms-powerful-vision-brings-sight-to-the-blind/article37605714/