Eyeglass prescription test team advances toward Hult Prize after MIT event

The PlenOptika team is developing a quick test device to speed up access to eyeglasses in poor areas

December 19, 2013

PlenOptika team

Nicholas J. Durr, Shivang Dave, Eduardo Lage

The charge is deceptively simple: identify the world’s most solvable problems, and solve them. Each year, the Hult Prize awards $1 million to the entrepreneurial team of college students with the best, most viable, and effective idea to address the challenge. Tens of thousands compete globally in regional competitions toward the grand prize.

This year’s challenge, selected by former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in September, is “Healthcare: Non-communicable Disease in the Urban Slum.” MIT is one of 10 schools globally who can send one team to bypass the online entries to compete for regional finals. On Dec. 12, five teams made three-minute pitches to a panel of judges to be MIT’s entry, providing a small sampling of the breadth of ideas that the Hult Prize fosters.

Pitches featured smartphone apps that serve as diagnostic tools, a proposal to utilize the antiseptic properties of honey to treat diabetic skin ulcerations, and a children’s educational cartoon to foster good nutrition habits. The winning entry, by PlenOptika, a team of senior fellows in the Madrid-MIT M+ Visión Consortium was a prototype diagnostic tool aimed at providing eyeglass prescriptions to millions with vision problems.

Shivang Dave, presenting for PlenOptika, focused on India, where eyeglasses are very affordable—at about $2 a pair—but access to diagnosis and a proper prescription is difficult.

“In the U.S., there’s one optometrist for every 6,000 people. In rural India, where 70 percent of the population lives, there’s one optometrist for every quarter million people,” he said.

The PlenOptika team’s product, a hand-held device called the QuickSee, can deliver a prescription with a 1-minute test, and can be operated by teachers or social workers with a minimum of training, attacking the bottleneck of delivering eyeglass prescriptions and improving access and affordability. According to team member Nicholas J. Durr, the team is in the process of building a new prototype for testing in Madrid in the next two months.

“We’re working on accuracy,” Durr said. “Right now it’s equivalent to the accuracy of a high-end auto refractor, and the signs are encouraging we can beat it.”

The team expects the product to sell for $500, making it affordable to traditional optometrists, who can then increase the number of patients served. They can then train teachers and social workers in the poorest-served areas of India.

Addressing vision, given the social, employment, and productivity impacts of impairment, would result in “every dollar spent returning five in productivity gains,” Dave said.

As the winner of the evening’s competition, PlenOptika will move directly to the Hult Prize regional finals in Boston in March, bypassing thousands of online entries for inclusion. Other regional finals are in San Francisco, London, Dubai, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo. During the months of July and August, the Hult Prize's six regional finalist teams will attend the Hult Prize Accelerator, a six-week program of intensive entrepreneurial seminars hosted by Hult International Business School. The final presentations are made during the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in September 2014, where one team will be awarded the Hult Prize of $1 million.