Philadelphia Business Journal
John George, June 8, 2012
ELKINS PARK — The lightbulb went off, almost literally, for Technical Vision Inc. during an informal dinner meeting in early 2011 attended by several of the company’s owners and advisers.
The issue, said Technical Vision’s CEO Lorraine Keller, was the laser cane under development would have cost $3,000 each to make.
“It had so many hand-assembled parts,”
While the company hasn’t given up on the laser-cane concept, she said, Technical Vision shifted its focus to a more affordable product idea as a result of the February dinner meeting.
Among those in attendance were Audrey J. Smith and Thomas Krol, members of the company’s technical advisory board.
Smith is dean of the College of Education and Rehabilitation at Salus University of Elkins Park. Salus is working with Technical Vision to develop easy-to-use mobility aids for the visually impaired. Krol, an engineer and entrepreneur with a background in electronics, is president and co-founder of IMET Corp. IMET is a product-development firm specializing in design, engineering and manufacturing. His firm makes product prototypes for Technical Vision.
Smith and Krol were chatting about their hobbies and backgrounds when Smith asked Krol about some of the products his firm has produced. He mentioned an LED (light-emitting diode) display used in retail outlets to promote a razor blade. Smith mentioned how it would be great to have LED lights on a cane to help people with low vision walk at night. Krol thought it could be done.
The conversation led to the creation of the StreetLight support cane, the company’s height adjustable cane with a built-in, two-millimeter light source that emits a broad spectrum of white light. The product is designed for the frail elderly, many of who also have chronic eye diseases and vision problems.
A retractable StreetLight mobility cane for those who are legally blind, some of whom have low vision, is also in development.
“There is nothing like this in the market,” Keller said, of the patent-pending device. “Some people have tried to use flashlights, but the light beams they shine are concentrated in a circle and the overall light quality is uneven.”
With the StreetLight cane, an area of about 24 to 30 inches in front of and laterally along the sides of the cane is illuminated intensely and evenly. A permanently mounted hood on the cane above the light source shields the user’s eyes, and the eyes of people nearby, from glare and direct exposure to the light.
“Why it took me so long to think of this is beyond me,” Smith said. “You know how they say in real estate the three most important things are location, location and location. Well, in helping people with low vision it’s light, light and light. [The StreetLight] doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it has a lot of practicality and it will increase independence and self-worth in the people who use it.”
Keller said the company has raised about $180,000 in grants, loans and personal investments. Its funding sources include a $50,000 loan from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and a $15,000 SBA loan. She is hoping to raise $250,000 so the company can begin to mass produce its StreetLight support cane and get it onto the market by the end of the year.
Even without the funding, Keller is hopeful the company will be able to start getting the product into people’s hands by year’s end. “We’ll bootstrap it if we have to,” she said.
Technical Vision was founded in 2007 by Sergey Naumovsky, a Russian engineer who moved to the United States in 1989.
Naumovsky’s original idea was to create glasses for people with vision problems that would be equipped microprocessors and miniaturized cameras. The glasses would have technology, similar to what is used in space rovers, capable of transferring space into sound so those wearing glasses could “hear” potential obstacles in their path through signals such as musical notes.
Working with BioStrategy Partners, a virtual incubator that supports startup companies in the life sciences industry, Naumovsky learned people with vision problems don’t favor devices that draw attention to their condition. He shifted the company’s technology into a less obtrusive device — a cane with lasers that could warn the user about obstacles.
While running Technical Vision, Naumovsky’s other company, Interactive Lot of Southampton, was taking off. The company markets technology he developed to help car dealerships track their inventory in real time.
“He wasn’t able to dedicate enough time to [Technical Vision], so he turned the company over to me,” said Keller, a life science entrepreneur who had served as Naumovsky’s mentor while he was working with BioStrategy Partners.
Keller and Naumovsky are now co-owners of Technical Vision along with Robert A. Rutman, the company’s chief financial officer, and Martin E. Gilligan Jr., who is vice president of business development. Smaller stakes in the company are also held by Krol at IMET and Alfred Erpel, the founder and CEO Compucraft Fabricators Inc. of Montgomeryville. Compucraft is also involved in making the company’s prototypes.
The market for products to help people with low vision is huge.
An estimated $40 billion is spent annually on assistive technologies in the United States, Keller said, adding that vision and reading aids account for about $30 billion of that total.
Vision loss affects people of all ages. In the United States, the number of people with vision loss is estimated at 12 million to 15 million.
Worldwide, according to Technical Vision, an estimated 245 million people are affected by changes in visual function caused by natural aging, macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts.
The National Eye Institute estimates that about 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, which it defines as having a low degree of light or visual perception. That number includes 260,000 people who are totally blind, meaning they have no light or visual perception.
Smith said millions of Americans have low vision, falling somewhere between fully sighted and legally blind. These people, she said, are excluded from the social services available to the legally blind.
“People are predicting that soon one out of every four people (age 65 and older) will be visually impaired,” she said.
Smith said low vision results in loss of depth perception and the inability to judge distances and a loss of contrast sensitivity — which interfere with the ability to recognize stairs, drop-offs, curbs, ramps and changes in surface texture. Visual acuity is reduced at night in almost all adults because of the natural aging process, she said, which increases the risk of falls even in individuals whose daytime acuity is normal.
Students at Salus University (equipped with special goggles to simulate low vision conditions) and even Smith’s mother, who suffers from low vision, are among those who have tested the Streetlight support cane.
Smith’s mom, Mary Jane Smith, wrote the company a testimonial letter after using the device. In it, she said: “My first experience with walking with this cane was on a dark, rainy evening. My eyesight at night is not the best and walking in an environment that is wet and slippery can be a bit scary. It was wonderful to be able to experience independence by using this cane to maneuver from the car in the driveway to the pathway that led to the front door of my daughter’s home, all by myself. The light at the end of the cane, provided just what I needed to see steps and small elevations so I could get to my destination safely. The best part of this was actually the independence for me and that I did not have to rely on another person to get me to where I wanted to go. This cane feels like a beacon to independence.”