Brett Sternfield, MBA ’20, found himself at a crossroads this past January.
Months earlier, the MIT Sloan student had successfully debuted his startup, Ocular Technologies, at the 2019 MIT delta v Demo Day. The company promised to revolutionize ophthalmic care and telemedicine with Ocular 1, a portable headset capable of automatically administering an eye exam and sending the data to an ophthalmologist for review.
Unfortunately, one of Sternfield’s two fellow co-founders had to drop out of the project for personal reasons. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly engulfing the global economy. It was only a matter of time before it struck the United States.
Sternfield spent the month thinking about whether continuing his work at Ocular was the right thing to do. “And then,” he says with a smile, “there was a rebirth.”
Actually, there were two. The first was thanks to Zona Liu, MBA ’20, a classmate of Sternfield’s who joined him and remaining co-founder Grayson Armstrong, MD at Ocular.
“It was very serendipitous because Zona is the one person in the MBA program I would want to start a business with,” says Sternfield. “She has worked on some amazing startups—both other peoples’ and her own. When her partner for one of these decided to pursue academia instead of spinning out the business, she became so stressed that she gave herself sties.”
Despite the pain, Liu was unable to get a much-needed appointment with an ophthalmologist. “I called Massachusetts Eye and Ear and was told I had to wait three weeks for the first available appointment,” she recalls. “Alternatively, I could visit their emergency care, and they couldn’t tell me how long the wait would be.” So Armstrong sat her down and popped the sties himself—and following the discussions these chance events initiated, Liu decided to join Ocular in its quest to revitalize ophthalmology and urgent care.
As for the second rebirth, it occurred due to a shortage of slit lamp shields at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, at which Armstrong serves as director of Ocular Trauma Service. “He was worried because he had ordered 200 of these slit lamp shields and they hadn’t arrived yet,” Sternfield recalls. “He said, ‘What do you think is going to happen to the rest of the health care system?’”
To assuage Armstrong, Sternfield went to a nearby Home Depot and picked up some acrylic. He then designed and cut the shields with help from the team at ProtoWorks.
“We made some first article shields and gave them away to Massachusetts Eye and Ear and the New England College of Optometry—our clinical partners up to that point,” says Sternfield.
The recipients were extremely grateful, but they were also in need of even more shields. Sternfield went back to Home Depot but quickly discovered that none of the stores in the area had any more acrylic. To make matters worse, new shipments were heavily delayed due to various pandemic-related shutdowns. So Sternfield turned to the Trust Center’s Bill Aulet, Mac Cameron, and Tommy Long, who then led him to Martin Culpepper.
Best known as MIT’s first “Maker Czar,” Culpepper was then brainstorming and testing the first designs for the Institute’s now-famous medical face shield. The two spoke briefly over the phone about what they were working on, and Sternfield outlined his struggle to acquire the materials he needed to make more slit lamp shields. Culpepper invited him to email the school’s COVID-19 working group for assistance.
Unfortunately, Culpepper and his colleagues weren’t able to help Sternfield out, but Sternfield wasn’t about to let one setback shut him down entirely. He returned to Aulet, who reached out to his many manufacturing connections. This led Sternfield through a dizzying game of telephone that finally put him in touch with Derek Gagnon, the general manager at Polymershapes.
“I called Derek and said, ‘I’ve got some parts I need you to make. Can I send you a DXF?’ And he said, ‘Sure, send it over.’ This was on a Friday,” Sternfield recalls. “That night, I drove up to Tyngsborough and picked up 210 of these plastic shields. Being a good salesman, Derek then asked me if there was anything else he could do for us. I told him there was.”
He connected Gagnon with Culpepper and the rest of the face shield design team. One week later, Polymershapes and MIT agreed to a significant manufacturing deal. The company would take the school’s simple design and produce hundreds of thousands of the face shields for use by medical professionals. They also agreed to donate some to Boston-area hospitals.
Sternfield enjoyed standing on the sidelines, watching as the NBC News crew filmed the production line at Polymershapes. As much as he enjoyed staying out of the spotlight, however, the intrepid Sloanie wasn’t about to escape without being noticed. As a thank you for the introduction, Culpepper sponsored 1,000 slit lamp shields with MIT funds dedicated to COVID-19 relief efforts—on the condition they be donated to local hospitals.
Sternfield, Liu, Armstrong, and an expansive network of MIT-affiliated volunteers immediately got to work fulfilling orders for Ocular’s slit lamp shields. They have since delivered hundreds of them to Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston Medical Center, Atrius Health, and New England College of Optometry. In addition, they also delivered shields to many smaller, private practices that were unable to cope with the high demands on the supply chain.
The team was happy to contribute their time and energy to MIT’s larger COVID-19 response. Yet what they didn’t anticipate was how much it would reinvigorate Ocular’s original mission. Not only has the company secured additional backers for the slit lamp shields, but they have also stirred renewed commercial interest in Ocular 1 and its telemedical potential.
What’s more, they received a significant boost from the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition’s Launch contest in May. Following an impassioned presentation from Sternfield, the panel of expert judges awarded the team the Robert P. Goldberg $100,000 grand prize.
“This destructive fire eliminated everything we had worked so hard to build. But now, we have lots of interest from across the entire industry and new clinical pilots within much bigger networks. I’m just really proud that this little idea turned into something that was so much bigger,” says Sternfield.
“I’ve seen members of the MIT Sloan community overcome all kinds of adversity with their startups. It was those same kinds of challenges that really got me down, but it was the stories of other entrepreneurs getting past them that lifted me up. Being a part of a community that embraces that—and offers so much support along the way—is great.”