UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Theia Optics, third-place winners in Penn State’s IdeaMaker competition, visualizing a way to easily produce affordable eyeglasses was crystal clear. As part of Penn State’s Startup Week, the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) holds the IdeaMaker Digital Innovation Challenge, a competition where students can pitch their ideas that focus on a societal or technological problem to successful business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Theia Optics, composed of Aidan Cronin, mechanical engineering; Markia Freeman, telecommunications; Ken Hall, engineering science; Jordan John, biology; and David Zaremsky, information science and technology, decided to find a way to inexpensively produce prescription eyeglasses, giving those with visual impairments the opportunity to see clearly even if they couldn’t afford hundreds of dollars for a pair of glasses.
The group members met in class the semester before the competition, where they realized they all had personal connections to their future idea.
"Our entire team has the distinction of being vision impaired," Zaremsky said. "For this reason the idea of having cheap glasses has been on all of our minds at one time or another. We all know that feeling of not being able to see the chalkboard in grade school, and how that little disadvantage can snowball as your eyesight gets worse."
When trying to come up with a name for their team, the students took inspiration from Greek mythology — Theia is the Greek goddess of sight.
Freeman estimates that it took the team about a semester’s worth of work to come up with the final pitch. The Theia Optics group, as Zaremsky told the judges, was “a melting pot of different disciplines coming together to work on the often overlooked problem of access to affordable eye care.”
Since team members came from so many different disciplines, they weren’t sure how plausible the idea actually was, but thought the potential for success was enough to move forward.
After applying for the competition, teams were selected for the preliminary workshop, where they presented three-minute pitches on how to build a rocket. Next, they advanced to the semifinals, where the six groups with the best pitches were selected for the finals. After a day to prepare and ask their assigned mentors any questions, the team presented its project. Matthew Bellingeri, a representative from General Electric, served as Theia Optics' mentor.
"Once we got to the final pitch though, it became high stakes because we really wanted to impress the judges," Cronin said.
Their competition included Senders, a team that proposed a new learning analytics platform to ease the awkwardness of speaking up in a crowded lecture hall, and KinderMinder, a team which proposed to help ensure the well-being of adolescents with asthma through app-tracking and timed questions similar to a FitBit.
“Being able to compete against the other teams was a humbling experience because they were full of exceptional Penn State students from all different backgrounds,” Cronin said. “It was great to be part of IdeaMaker and compete against a lot of talented people with great ideas."
When teaching Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) classes, interim HESE director Esther Obonyo said she encouraged students to apply for the competition in order to give them experience outside of the classroom.
"In the class, we all meet regularly and talk in a cumulative manner building on findings from the previous week," she said. "When one steps outside of the class he/she exposes their project to people who do not know anything about the context and the background. It forces one to do a much better job of explaining the problem statement and the pertinent issues. When facing an external audience, one has to also clearly identify the key stakeholders, articulate the working hypothesis, and present a coherent method statement that outlines how their proposal addresses all these important questions."
The main idea of the competition, Obonyo said, is to do something "ambitious, but practical," a design that is challenging to do, but one that a determined individual can gradually execute through leveraging strategic partnership.
She added that one of the most important parts of the competition is teamwork, because competitors need to work in a “one body with different parts” kind of way in order to sign off on the deliverables in a timely manner. Another key aspect of competing successfully is credibility.
"Before a team proposes to do something ambitious, they must perform an objective assessment of what they can put on the table as accessible resources," Obonyo said. "The team must ask themselves these important questions on a regular basis — do I have the ability, the skills to make this happen? Do I know how to connect with people who have the ability, the skills and the resources that I do not have?"
Obonyo sees the competition as a way for students to achieve validation of their evolving solutions outside of the words of affirmation from their professor.
“If my students step out of the class and someone else tells them ‘this is a really good idea and you guys are approaching it the right way' then their professor’s encouragement as well as the voice of independent reviewers telling them the same thing," she said.
Based on recent data, Theia Optics estimated that 25 percent of those with visual impairments cannot afford to correct their visual impairments with eyeglasses or corrective technology, though 75 percent of the world has some form of visual impairment.
"After you drop $100 or $200 on a pair of glasses the thought occurs to you 'how do people across the world afford glasses?'" Zaremsky said. "It isn't some optional benefit that you can go without, it isn't a case for your cellphone, it's the piece of technology that allows you to see."
Rather than relying on internationally produced glasses, Theia Optics proposed a solution where eyeglasses could be produced locally using a 3-D printer, drastically reducing the cost of production, and allowing for quicker transport to ophthalmologist offices and eye care centers. By producing 3-D printed glasses in a localized hub, the cost of eyeglasses could be lowered to just $7 a pair, a much more affordable cost.
Theia Optic’s pitch discussed that anyone would be able to walk into an eye care center, pick out a frame from a catalog and walk out the next day with an affordable pair of glasses designed to help his or her unique eye issue. Ideally, Freeman said, each ophthalmologist office would have access to its own 3-D printer, where eyeglasses could be designed and printed based on the software that Theia Optics created.
For their competition entry, Theia Optics designed and sculpted a prototype pair of eyeglasses using a 3-D printer. With the sophisticated technology that an actual lab would provide, the glasses could be refined to create a more polished frame and lenses with sharper visibility.
“With 3-D printing, we’re able to make the lens more customizable,” Freeman said. She likened the creation to a shoe size, where someone walking into a store might require a 7.5 size shoe, but the only available sizes are a 7 and 8. With the specialization that the 3D printing can provide, creating a unique product to fit the customer becomes much easier.
Despite the challenge of being in the final round, Freeman said the group felt fairly calm before Zaremsky presented the project to the judges. “We were pretty relaxed, we were just happy to have been picked and to be involved in participating in the challenge.”
The group took third place, also earning the Dave Hall Award, named for former College of IST Dean David Hall, who helped establish Startup Week. Created by the IST advisory board, the award is “given to the student who best exemplifies collaboration and innovation across disciplinary areas.”
"Receiving the Dave Hall Award meant a lot to us because our team took a little bit of knowledge from all over campus and we were really proud of that," Cronin said. "We were honored and very grateful." Winning, he added, is "a testament to how hard my teammates worked and how much creativity everyone provided."
Having placed highly in the competition, the group feels their idea is validated, even if they recognize that there’s still room to improve.
"Winning third place was an incredibly validating experience for everyone on the team," Zaremsky said.
Freeman added that the team was happy to place third.
“We weren’t upset that we didn’t get first or second. Being able to present our idea in front of industry expert professionals and get feedback was really great and helpful,” he said.