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Apple of their eyes: oDocs picks Steve Wozniak’s brains, plans to go global with eye care

Originally published August 24, 2016: An Auckland social enterprise that works at restoring eyesight to the blind with smartphones has had its work recognised by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Sir Richard Branson. Does this mean more people will be able to see oDocs’ vision?

Building physical attachments to help optometrists perform eye exams with smartphones, giving them tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment in their pockets for just a few hundred dollars, is a far cry from the stuff of science fiction – but that’s probably because it forms one of the pillars of Kiwi social enterprise startup oDocs’ business.

Now, the company – which was founded in 2014 – is getting some major international accolades, thanks to snagging the “Best Start Up – Social Impact” at the Talent Unleashed Awards in Sydney. The awards, which recognise the very best in game-changing technology throughout Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions, were judged by a panel that included none other than Sir Richard Branson and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

“It’s fair to say we were a bit of an underdog,” says oDocs co-founder Dr Hong Sheng Chiong. “We were up against other winners like ResApp Health who’ve raised more than $13 million, while we were sharing a hotel room to cut down on costs. We’re a lean operation.”

Chiong had to pitch to Wozniak and the panel at the awards to take out the top prize.

“Steve Wozniak is the ultimate designer, engineer, maker and entrepreneur, so to earn his praise is incredibly gratifying,” he says. “He’s also a humble guy to talk to and shared a lot of wisdom with us about the importance of working creatively and quickly to stay ahead of the pack. It’s a lesson we’ll take forward as we push on with our mission to prevent the millions of cases of preventable blindness every year.”

As part of their win, the oDocs team will be heading to Silicon Valley and mentorship with “Woz” as part of the award.

“He gave us one of his stainless steel business cards for the plane ride,” says oDocs CEO Hanna Eastvold-Edwins. “Woz claims he uses them to cut his steaks when given plastic cutlery. It’s funny, but that shows his ability to look at things in ways most people don’t.”

Looking at things in ways other people don’t is kind of oDocs’ specialty, Eastvold-Edwins explains. “We’re passionate about preventing blindness; it’s the thing that drives us,” she says. “The eye health industry needs a revolution because at the moment good care is far too cost-prohibitive. Two hundred and eighty-five million people around the world are blind and 80 percent of these cases were preventable or treatable, most of these in developing countries.”

There are also issues in Aotearoa, she says. “In New Zealand, eye doctors and ophthalmologists are just over-worked. Diabetes is exploding, and you’ve got an ageing population as well.”

Design director Alain Brideson says the company’s DIY products, sold for a fraction of the cost of traditional optometry equipment, could hopefully bring some much-needed fresh energy to a stale industry dealing with ever-increasing amounts of stress. “We’ve packed $50,000 worth of optometry equipment into two iPhone attachments that we sell for less than $500 USD. Paired with our app, this is truly game-changing technology that can deliver world-class eye care to those who need it most and help us decentralise medical care.”

The company also commits half of all its net profits to saving eyesight in developing countries. Currently raising a seed round of $500,000 and preparing to ship products to its first customers later this year, Eastvold-Edwins says the recent accolades are about more than a single company or product.

“It shows the New Zealand tech ecosystem is competitive on a global scale,” she explains. “The DIY culture here is so strong. It empowers people.”

That’s something we can see clearly.

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