Ocutrx, an Irvine, California startup, is launching a transparent, standalone AR headset early next year, the OcuLenz, that provides vision correction to patients with advanced macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in adults over 60. “Advanced forms of the disease lead to a devastating and irreversible loss of the highly detailed central vision for which we have no treatment,” said Dr. Thomas A. Finley, MD, a vitreoretinal surgeon and early champion of OcuLenz, in an interview.
Ocutrx was founded in 2015 by brothers Michael Freeman (CEO/CTO) and Mitchael Freeman when their father, an entrepreneur and former fighter pilot, Brig. General Richard C. Freeman was diagnosed with age-related AMD. In the 80s, General Freeman bought a computer catalog sales company, PC Designs, which then expanded into retail and then government sales. At one point in the mid-90s, PC Designs was the largest supplier of computer products to the state of California. With this background and experience running a large assembly plant, Freemans, along with brother-in-law Chad Boss, developed the first mobile video product that was the basis for IEEE 802.11(n). Given their success, the general challenged his sons to develop a technological solution to his growing disability.
Dr. Finley was General Freeman’s surgeon and saw him every six months for anti-VEGF shots (which delay the progression of AMD). General Freeman told Dr. Finley that he and his sons were developing a vision correction device for AMD. “Dr. Finley must have thought my father was losing his mind,” said Ocutrx co-founder and COO, Mitchael Freeman. After General Freeman passed away in 2017, his sons took the first prototype of their OcuLenz headset to Dr. Finley’s office to show him the pixel manipulation software they developed to normalize the vision of an AMD patient. Dr. Finley became the first outside investor in the company.
Both rounds of Ocutrx funding came from ophthalmologists and surgeons who are well aware of the desperate need for a technological solution for those suffering from the disease. The company recently launched Round C to further drive OcuLenz commercialization. Ocutrx will produce several thousand units each month by the end of the year, and by 2024 they expect to produce 5,000 OcuLenz head-mounted displays a month. With twenty million Americans suffering from AMD, they are well aware of the need for a solution.
The journey has been long. Although, according to CEO Michael Freeman, the “aha” moment came early, when they discovered that their dad could see a curved TV screen better than a regular flat screen. The general could see better as more information was presented to his peripheral vision. That’s when the brothers, along with their nephew, Jordan Boss, came up with a seemingly simple solution, which was to simply move images away from the central vision and into the peripheral where the patients could see. The pixel manipulation software they developed worked, but they couldn’t find an AR headset that could meet their needs.
“At first we were just going to develop software and use someone else’s hardware, but all AR products had such a limited field of view at the time (and still now) that we decided to build our own,” said Michael Fri man. “If you’re working with patients who have lost up to 20% of their central vision, a 35-degree AR headset isn’t going to do much. That’s why we started working with a 60-degree horizontal and 40-degree vertical headset. We went through about 15 versions, each slightly larger FOV than before. Then we found Dr. David Kessler, Ph.D.” Dr. Kessler, is one of the nation’s top photonics and optics engineers, with over 100 optical patents to his name.He spent twenty-four years at Eastman Kodak creating optics for cameras, telescopes, and microscopes, and later developed and designed AR/VR systems for twenty companies.
Based on his expertise in AR/VR and realizing the shortcomings of the available solutions, Kessler came up with a better idea for a reflective and refractive optical engine, which he built in 2020 as Ocutrx Chief Optical Engineer. Together with the Freemans, Kessler created what they call a “Near-eye, Pupil-forming Catadioptric Optical Engine.”
The Howe Innovation Center at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston identifies over twenty other companies working on wearables for AMD patients. Some devices are helpful in specific ways, like the OrCam, which attaches to your glasses. It looks at what you read and speaks it. The most common approach is the type of magnification offered by NuEyes, which is primarily used as a surgical loupe. Neal Weinstock is the founder and CEO of Soliddd AR, whose AMD corrective headset has been in development for ten years. He and his co-founder, Berkeley professor emeritus Richard Muller, plan to launch a cheaper headset in the near future. After a $1.3 million seed round, Soliddd is raising $2 million to go to market with its design. OcuLenz takes a completely different approach by using pixel manipulation software, with a patented near-eye optical engine.
Ocutrx has developed close relationships with specialists and surgeons, many of whom are investors. They have encouraged the company to address pain points in other aspects of its work that only doctors would know about. “During the covid lockdown, our development supply chain for the OcuLena AR headset crashed,” explained CEO Freeman. “We pivoted to develop the OR-Bot, which is what surgeons at over 16 professional conferences had requested. Because of the poor ergonomics associated with the Standard Optical Microscope (SOM), a 100-year-old design, fifteen percent of retinal surgeons to need orthopedic surgery.” The OR-Bot addresses this problem by allowing the surgeon to dictate his or her comfort position and allowing the visualization system to adapt around him or her.
OcuLenz for AMD will have an MSRP of $6,000. Medicare will cover approximately $1,800 of the purchase price. Low vision centers, university hospitals, low vision industry distributors and the company’s website will be the primary sales channels for the new AR device. A custom-built Snapdragon XR2 processor from Qualcomm Technologies powers the OcuLenz. Ocutrx will release a Unity SDK in early 2024, enabling third parties to develop applications for OcuLenz.
“Powered by the Snapdragon XR2 platform, OcuLenz is a great example of how XR technologies can make a positive difference in people’s lives. We applaud Ocutrx for harnessing the power of XR to bring its unique high-definition solution to patient care,” said Jeff Henckels, director of XR product management at Qualcomm, said in a statement.
Freeman says gaming, entertainment and enterprise and medical applications can be built with the company’s optical hardware and software.
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