Physics alum has a vision for eye exam app

Alumni & Friend Profile: Dr. John A. Serri, PhD ’80

Dr. John A. Serri, PhD ’80
Dr. John A. Serri, PhD ’80

Sandi Miller | Department of Physics
March 28, 2018

With the invention of two inexpensive optical devices and a free smartphone app that provides a DIY eye exam, John Serri thinks he may be one of the oldest startup entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. But as he told MIT students and others at a talk in April 2017, when you have what it takes to get an MIT PhD in atomic physics, you can do just about anything.

He recently gave a talk to students, his former PhD advisor, Professor David Pritchard, Physics Department Head Peter Fisher, and others interested in hearing about his transition from receiving an MIT PhD in atomic physics to a successful career as a corporate tech leader. Serri, who received his PhD from MIT in 1980, guided audience members in using a small plastic cylinder that, when attached to their smartphones, produce refraction correction numbers used for ordering corrective eyeglasses.

Serri has a long history as a technical leader at major corporations including AT&T, Bell Laboratories, Lockheed Martin, Loral, Globalstar, and Trimble Navigation along with stints working with the US government. Serri used his background in math and physics to work on such projects as modeling of gas molecules interacting with crystal surfaces, how to determine the best routes to send data through rapidly changing networks, and producing efficient algorithms for data analysis. His interest in large systems led to the development of secure global networks, low-earth–orbit sat-phone networks, sensor distribution networks, and real estate analytic/big-data enterprise applications.

About EyeQue and Dr. Serri

Dr. John A. Serri, co-founder/COO of EyeQue with CEO Tibor Láczay, of Zenni Optical.

Education: PhD MIT ’80, with Prof. David Pritchard. SUNY Albany BS, mathematics and physics 1975

Fun fact: Serri is a keyboardist who has released several CDs; they are available on Amazon, iTunes, and other music websites.

Other career highlights: technical leader at AT&T, Bell Laboratories, Lockheed Martin, Loral, Globalstar, and Trimble Navigation. 20+ year corporate experience, migrating from tech to management. 10+ in education and consulting roles.

Company: EyeQue, Newark, CA

Employees: 15  

Career opportunities: mechanical engineers, optical engineers and software engineers, product managers, marketing, and sales. Interested? Contact John at john.serri@eyeque.com

Funding: $6 million, private investors

Patents/Licenses: 6 patents for hardware design and software processing related to the miniscope; Exclusive worldwide license agreement with MIT for eye refraction using Inverse Shack Hartmann technique. Patent for binocular device/Insight?

Registered with FDA:  Class 1 Medical Device

Awards: EyeQue Personal Vision Tracker: Best of Innovation in the Fitness, Sports and Biotech category for the international consumer electronics show CES2017. Finalist for the Prism Awards for Photonics Innovations by the SPIE international society for optics and photonics.

Website: www.eyeque.com

In his talk, Serri related how, just as he was ready to retire, he instead followed up on cocktail party chats that led to his eventual success as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Seeing the Impossible

In 2015, he and his friend, Tibor Láczay, CEO of Zenni Optical, the discount online eyewear company, were at one of their wives’ biotech-oriented networking parties. The two of them speculated: What if a low-cost refractive device coupled with a smartphone app could give them the results of a prescription that in turn could be used to order eyeglasses?

Serri had been thinking of retirement, but then he took a quick detour. “We said, ‘How hard could it be to build a little piece of plastic?  Let’s do it!’ We then formed a little company called EyeQue to answer the question,” recalled Serri.

While he doesn’t have a background in optometry, Serri said that his rigorous physics training gave him the experience needed to solve any sort of problem, including optometry ones.

The first thing EyeQue did was to obtain the licensing rights to a bit of MIT technology, and they then  set up a small office in the San Francisco Bay area to develop  the Personal Vision Tracker.

Part of the solution is dependent on a licensing agreement with MIT’s patented smartphone eye refraction test using the inverse of the Shack–Hartmann method. This interactive, portable, and inexpensive solution for estimating refractive errors in the human eye was designed in 2010 by Vitor Pamplona, Ankit Mohan, Manuel Oliveira, and Ramesh Raskar, as part of the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Group. While Shack–Hartmann sensors measure localized slope of the wave front error using spot displacement in a sensor plane, the MIT technology has the user shifting the spots until they are aligned.

One of the challenges was figuring out how to make the technology work on a variety of phones, because screen pixel properties differ by phone model. The optical miniscope attaches to the screen of a smartphone (IOS or Android). The voice on the app, an optometrist friend of Serri’s, guides the user through a series of self-administered tests. Vision measurements are transmitted to the EyeQue Cloud, where algorithms create “EyeGlass Numbers,” the spherical, cylindrical and axis parameters used to order prescription eyeglasses. The data is securely stored online; over time, users can track vision changes or compare results to prescriptions they have received from their eye doctor.    

At first, their idea met resistance. “People told me it’s impossible to do this; we were told we needed over $5 million to develop a product,” he says. “It actually took less than $1.5 million.” They decided against securing venture capital, choosing instead to self-fund the company. This allowed the team to focus entirely on product development and marketing.

The product, which is a monoscope form, is easy to use and noninvasive. Serri estimates under good test conditions that the device covers more than 99% of the population’s refractive error range, from extreme hyperopia to extreme myopia. It also accurately measures low to severe astigmatism.

After testing on family and friends, they produced their first round of commercial units in October 2016.

To market the product, they created the website in October 2017 and then did press outreach, press releases, blog postings, and social media; they also launched a Kickstarter campaign. They exhibited at CES 2017 in January and participated in a media event exclusive to CES award winners, which gave the product immediate broad exposure.

Serri said that everything happened so quickly. Serri admits that there was an element of luck in their initial success. At first sales through the Kickstarter campaign were very slow: “We thought we were heading for disaster,” he recalled. And then, the campaign suddenly took off and they soon had sold 5,500 devices and raised over $130,000, exceeding their original funding goal by 540 percent.

They also “lucked out” by using the first manufacturer they met at a conference. “We had a really good feeling about them and went ahead with selecting them as our manufacturer,” Serri says. “I normally wouldn’t recommend a single-source approach, but sometimes with limited time and budget that is the best way to proceed. Overall we didn’t make any big mistakes.”

So far, over 16,000 EyeQue miniscopes have been shipped to customers in 81 countries, and they anticipate selling millions of units via the EyeQue online store, online and brick & mortar retail outlets, and overseas sales.

For the initial product, they didn’t want to get weighed down with too many features. “We just kept it as simple as possible. It’s better to get something out sooner and find out how people use and perceive the device before putting in too much effort to make it perfect.”

This gave the company time and energy to then create its second wish-list item: a binocular device designed to test visual acuity (clarity of distance vision). This EyeQue Insight also uses a smartphone attachment, in the form of a binocular instrument. After completing another successful Kickstarter campaign, the company recently began fulfilling a backlog of pre-orders for these devices. “The development of the binocular device was a strategic investment toward a plethora of future products in that the platform is scalable to support a variety of future vision tests such as providing contacts lens refractive correction numbers and testing for presbyopia,” says Serri.

EyeQue is a game-changer

Serri says his technology “has a great positive but disruptive potential.”

Why is this such a major development? The basic paradigm of getting an eye test once a year will be replaced by taking an eye test anytime, any place, at a low cost, says Serri. This would allow consumers to track their vision changes over shorter time intervals and increase communication about vision changes with their eye care providers. For families with school-aged children, for example, whose eyes develop rapidly, the ability to use a device like the Insight to identify vision changes between doctor’s visits can make an enormous difference in that child’s performance and social engagement, Serri says.

There are also users who want to measure their vision more frequently than their eye insurance-allowed annual eye exam. For those with diabetes, vision can change frequently and dramatically. Having a personal device to track your vision could be invaluable, Serri says. “Our community of users is just beginning to explore the possibilities,” he says.

Furthermore, many don’t live near an eye doctor, and commercial-level auto refractors are $10,000. “Eye care doesn’t exist in many areas of the world,” adds Serri. “A little device like this can make a big difference.”

Serri is quick to point out that the device won’t put eye doctors out of business. It doesn’t diagnose eye problems such as macular degeneration or glaucoma. yeQue urges their customers to visit a doctor annually for a full eye health exam, and warns them to use this product for informational and recreational purposes only. 

“What we provide is not an Rx-type prescription, as that can only be provided by a licensed eye care practitioner, but rather good estimates that are often accurate to within 0.25 diopters if the test is done correctly,” he said. However, even though it is not intended for creating Rx prescriptions, EyeQue has registered the device to the FDA as a Class 1 medical device.

Serri has received a lot of positive feedback on this technology. Said one testimonial: “I ordered glasses using your EyeGlass Numbers and I see perfectly with them.”

At the end of the talk, Serri shared a few startup lessons, and many students asked questions about startup do’s and don’ts. Here were his suggestions:

  • Use the best tools you can buy; for example, don’t scrimp by using buggy freeware.
  • Hire the best people you can, and pay them well.
  • Develop a productive positive company culture; hire people who are not only smart but also nice!
  • Have a clear vision and manageable goals, and communicate those goals clearly to all involved.
  • Initially work in stealth mode if possible; focus on the product, not on publicity.
  • Avoid feature-creep; consumers and engineers will want to add a little bit here and there to your product, often creating lots of unneeded complexity.
  • Don’t heed the advice of experts as immutable truths; in the end listen to your “gut instincts.”
  • Vigorously plan for and solve the issues you know about so you can survive the unanticipated issues you never thought about.
  • Work in a corporate environment for a few years before you strike out on your own.

MIT Reunion

Serri’s visit to campus was also a mini reunion with Professor David Pritchard, with whom he worked with to do his doctoral research on state-to-state molecular collisions. “David (Pritchard) was tough on me,” Serri says. “The research challenges he presented were an incredible training, yet humbling experience. I think he eventually saw my potential after a rough start as I stayed on as a post doc, then as a visiting scientist. I always felt I was a lucky person to get into MIT and to have David Pritchard as my thesis advisor.”

One of Serri’s goals with the talk was to also advise students about how they could turn their physics degree into a commercial career. But he also encouraged everyone to take their time with settling into retirement. “I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair,” he said. “I still have too much energy!”

Consumers are able to purchase the EyeQue Personal Vision Tracker and the EyeQue Insight directly from the EyeQue website at www.eyeque.com, and download the free myEyeQue applications through the iTunes and Google Play stores.