Stephen Kurtin built 13 different versions of adjustable-focus eyeglasses before he got them right. The 14th time was the charm.
He was looking for an alternative to bifocals and progressive lenses, and after about 20 years of trying, he finally found one. It’s called the Superfocus and it works this way: The wearer uses a finger to slide a lever on the nose bridge. The lever adjusts liquid in a membrane that changes the focus so that the wearer can see something close-up or at a distance.
“I was not a believer until I tried them,” said Jim Torii, an information technology consultant for Landmark Technology Management in Gardena, an information technology contractor for Superfocus. “They are just so functional.”
The glasses look much like the ones worn by Harry Potter. They come in two styles of round frames, in four colors. Prices range from around $700 to more than $1,000. Sunglass lenses are available for $199 more; transition lenses for $299 more. To use the sunglass or transition lenses, the wearer slides the outer lens out of the glasses frame and replaces it with the sunglass or transition lens.
The glasses are sold through select optometry stores or the company’s website, with the prescription provided by the customer.
Kurtin did the research and experimentation for Superfocus glasses at his company, Lane Research LLC. Meanwhile, he was making money inventing, patenting and licensing other products in sound, optics, computer technology and other fields.
Typically, he would license an invention to a corporation, but the eyeglass business is different because lens makers are separate from frame makers, and Kurtin’s invention required a company that did both. So he had to launch one.
“There really wasn’t a natural place to license it,” Kurtin said.
So about four years ago, he launched the company that later became SuperFocus LLC in Van Nuys, in partnership with Chief Executive Adrian Koppes and backers. High-profile figures such as former Amgen Chief Executive Gordon Binder and computer angel investor Jonathan Seybold also invested later.
A turning point in the company’s efforts came in September, when the Wall Street Journal gave it a Technology Innovation Award. Sales leaped immediately, also aided by a national television ad campaign.
The 23-employee company’s orders quadrupled in November and December compared with July and August. Its summer sales had already doubled from the previous quarter. Koppes said he expects its orders will quadruple this year.
Superfocus isn’t profitable yet, he acknowledged. He wouldn’t give specific sales figures, saying only that the glasses sold in the thousands last year.
Michael Bourgoin, an optometrist who owns his own practice in Costa Mesa, said the Superfocus glasses have been popular among tech-savvy men.
“The ones who really have an interest, once they have them, they love them,” he said. “It is very interesting technology and it does work.”
Room for growth
Kurtin started working on the glasses after he was diagnosed with presbyopia, a condition in which an aging eye exhibits a progressively diminished ability to focus on near objects. Koppes said industry research shows that $10 billion in prescription eyeglasses are bought by presbyopia sufferers every year in the United States.
Of that, there’s an increasing number of Superfocus glasses in the mix, Kurtin said.
The company’s backlog has swelled from a two-week turnaround to now close to 10 weeks, from when orders come in, prescriptions being filled, and all 50 parts being imported or built in Van Nuys.
“That customers are willing to wait is an indication that the problem they have is severe,” Koppes said.
But the product is not for everyone, some analysts said. The glasses do not correct all eye disorders and some customers may not like the design or the manual focus adjustments.
“Whether they are going to put bifocals out of business, probably not,” said Melissa Chun, director of the Vision Rehabilitation Center at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The company’s biggest competitors are makers of progressive lenses, bifocals or trifocals. Those, however, can cause headaches or nausea in some cases.
Eye surgeons also use several techniques to correct presbyopia, while other treatments are still being developed or require further experimentation.
The company occupies about 3,300 square feet in an office complex near the Van Nuys Airport, and Koppes said it has plans to expand in the current facility to add more lens cutting and fluid cleaning stations.
“We have a wonderful problem,” he said. “They’re selling faster than we can build them.”
YEAR FOUNDED: 2006
HEADQUARTERS: Van Nuys
CORE BUSINESS: Eyeglass manufacturing.
GOAL: To quadruple sales this year.