The $244 billion design problem lurking in plain sight

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Myopia doesn’t sound so scary, but more and more people around the world are suffering from its clinical name: myopia. Because of myopia, China can’t find enough pilots, while the world loses $244 billion in productivity a year, and that’s just the beginning: by 2050, more than half of the population world is expected to be myopic, and up to 10% of this group will go blind due to the condition.

The problem was once primarily genetic, but new cases are increasingly being attributed to children who spend too much screen time and too little sunlight for eyes to develop properly. And while research has shown that preventing myopia isn’t much more complicated than spending enough time outdoors, a new pair of glasses developed by designer Todd Bracher and a former NASA scientist aims to correct myopia without forcing anyone to change their behavior, take medication, or wear special prismatic lenses. They were finalists in our recent World Changing Ideas awards.

Glasses are really nothing more than a frame. Instead of lentils, they are simply outdoor. But when they soak up a minute of sunlight or strong lamplight, they glow for a full 25 minutes with the exact wavelength of sunlight that helps eyes grow. The creators of the glasses believe that experiencing this wavelength twice a day is enough to thwart the onset of myopia.

[Image: Betterlab]

“Our technology is purely passive. You don’t have to load the thing,” Bracher says. “It’s basically a glow in the dark.”

The glasses were developed by Bracher’s Betterlab. For his daily work, Bracher runs a design studio of 14 people. He did a lot of the typical design contractor work for companies like Humanscale, where he developed one of the most eco-friendly task chairs to date. Yet in recent years, it also softly launched Betterlab as an arm of venture capital projects to branch out into more experimental, high-impact products that were closer to research than market.

“In the design industry in general, there’s a lot of celebration around coffee tables and sofas,” says Bracher. “There is obviously a place for that. But for me, it limits in terms of our contributions.

Myopia Glasses are Betterlab’s first public project. They feature a modernist and rounded design. Their secret sauce lies entirely in their ability to glow at the right wavelength to activate retinal dopamine, a key neurotransmitter affecting your eye development: 480 nm or nanometers. Bracher was able to source this photoluminescent pigment from a single supplier, which is mixed into the resin of the lenses so that it does not scratch like a simple coat of paint.

“If you’re in a dark room, you’ll see a really cool light effect,” says Bracher. “We wanted to de-stigmatize [myopia treatment], where there are many glasses of Coke bottles. We thought it would be more fun.

Bracher’s design is patent pending and has not yet been validated by third-party research. But the logic is good: rather than building and installing lighting to emit 480nm inside schools and offices around the world, he thinks it’s easier and more cost-effective to just produce lighted glasses. .

As such, he hasn’t decided whether he will actually market the glasses or license others to use the technology. Much depends on the exact nature of the funding for this project, which is still undetermined. And this lack of determination is normal at Betterlab.

In short, Betterlab is where Bracher wants to develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. Rather than operating like a more typical design consultancy, Betterlab partners with scientists and researchers — people who often have heaps of patents but no product expertise — to turn intellectual property into high-impact products. impact.

“Researchers are writing patents for solutions that could happen in 10 years. They predict the future,” says Bracher. “A gentleman I work with has over 400 patents, half of which technology hasn’t arrived yet.”

Bracher said he was first inspired to start Betterlab after consulting for 3M, where he came across the company’s sizable patent portfolio which, for all intents and purposes, just sat there. Companies file patents in filing cabinets and leave it to lawyers to sue other companies for licensing fees. After 20 years of building products, Bracher sees his role, as a science-minded designer, in translating some of the innovation that lies hidden in research into deliverable products.

In addition to myopia glasses, Bracher has developed two other products under the Betterlab umbrella. The first is a project he coordinates with a major sunglass manufacturer, which uses NASA research on the circadian rhythm to help athletes, or anyone who travels, beat jet lag. The solution is in two parts. The first is an algorithm (in an app), developed in the 1980s for the International Space Station, that schedules when you can see light of certain wavelengths to promote new sleep schedules. To go along with the algorithm, Bracher is building more glasses to filter out the right wavelengths of light, at the right times, to promote better sleep.

The second project is based on UVC light. In January 2020, Bracher began collaborating with another scientist on using this light to kill germs without damaging your skin, building light fixtures that could be installed in buildings to purify surfaces. (This UVC approach was very popular in the industry and sparked a lot of debate). After meeting with a major banking chain and hearing the details of the company’s Purel budget during COVID-19, he thought of another articulation of UVC technology: he developed a wearable device that can be used instead of Purel to sanitize your hands, without all the extra waste and skin inflammation that can come from hand sanitizer.

The challenges ahead for Bracher and Betterlab resemble the same challenges that innovators face all the time: finding the right sources of funding to bring the most impactful ideas to market in order to turn good science into tangible products.

“We are here to let them [as scientists] are doing their life’s work responding to global concerns,” says Bracher. “And [ours as designers] is to do our job, which is to close the adoption gap.

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