Late one night at his kitchen table, J. Kevin White visualized a solution to a problem he had grappled with for years. He needed a device that would let people diagnose their own vision problems, without an optometrist. Fiddling with a pair of bifocals, he imagined stretching out the the full spectrum of vision adjustments across a single lens, each prescription a different curvature. He grabbed a yellow legal pad and started sketching.
“I designed it in total from that epiphany moment,” says White, 50, who leads the nonprofit Global Vision 2020. Five years later, he can hold the finished product in his hand: USee, a low-tech, low-cost tool for diagnosing vision problems and prescribing glasses without an eye doctor.
In areas of the developing world, eye doctors can be as rare as one in 1 million. The USee reduces the educational and technological barriers keeping an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world from getting the glasses they need to learn, work, and more.
A $72,000 prize from the D.C. Creator Awards, a WeWork-sponsored competition for innovators, brought White closer to that target by allowing him to produce the USee for the first time, using 3D printed frames and computer-cut lenses. So far, Global Vision 2020 has distributed 6,000 pairs of eyeglasses using their kits, which include the USee diagnostic tool, snap-in lenses, and frames.
In the last year, Global Vision 2020’s efforts have been concentrated in Mozambique, where White estimates 5.6 million people have no or limited access to eyeglasses. In 2016 and 2017, the organization conducted field trials at four of the country’s high schools, using teachers as the screeners and getting glasses to all students who needed them.
The USee system helps lower the cost per pair of glasses to $4. But White’s goal is to cut that figure in half, a target he may reach this year thanks to his most recent funding boost. In January, Global Vision 2020 made it to the Creator Awards Global Finals in New York City, and White wound up a $1 million winner, standing stunned on stage alongside his two sons, Oliver and Owen.
“This will allow us to produce thousands of the device, instead of tens and twenties,” he says. “This is a large capital investment that the $1 million more than covers.”
White first noticed the challenge of delivering inexpensive eyeglasses to developing nations during his 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps. As the director of humanitarian civic assistance—which he calls the “coolest job I ever had”—he allocated part of his $16 million budget to giving away eyeglasses in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. “That opened my eyes to the fact that lots of people can’t get the glasses they need,” he says.
When White was jotting down ideas in his kitchen in 2014, he had been dwelling on two major issues: cost and coolness. Before the USee, the nonprofit, founded in 2009, gave out bulky, adjustable eyeglasses that were $22 a pop. While innovative at the time, young people didn’t want to wear the odd-looking specs. Now Global Vision 2020 sends out the USee device with each kit, along with a stockpile of standard frames and snap-in lenses.
First tested on White’s youngest son Oliver, who’s now 13, the USee uses a lens bar ranging from negative six to positive six, the standard range for vision checks. Each prescription is stated in easy-to-understand color and number combinations. If a user sees most clearly at Red 2, they can then snap corresponding lenses into a new set of frames and walk out the door with new glasses in 10 minutes.
Looking for partners
The first prototype of the USee lens was developed in 2014 with the help of Oxford University researcher Dr. David Crosby, one of White’s connections from his military career. White says few others in the world could have brought his sketch to life. This happens many times over in White’s quest to bring eyesight to the masses: experts in their fields willing to lend a hand for a worthy cause.
The most recent instance came in 2016 at Johns Hopkins University, where White is currently pursuing an MBA. Finding himself at the doorstep of world-class medical research facilities, White connected with the Wilmer Eye Institute’s Dr. David Friedman, who was willing to conduct trials using the prototype developed by Crosby. The trials were completed in 2017, and just this month, peer-reviewed journal Plos published the results.
Reflecting on his lucky breaks, White thinks back to his days at the Naval Academy, when a family who hosted him on weekends told him, “Coincidences are the Lord’s way of remaining anonymous.”
“I look back on my life and it’s just coincidence after coincidence,” White says.
Looking to the future, White wants to create more government-level partnerships in countries like Mozambique, where he continues to build relationships with education officials.
“Our goal,” he says, “is for someone to say, ‘Hey, we want 2,000 kits,’ and we say, ‘Great, give us three weeks.’”