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Innovation in the cloud: Do-it-yourself online eye exams

Bernard Golden | Aug. 17, 2015
In this first in a series of columns about disruptive products and services enabled by cloud computing, columnist Bernard Golden looks at a company that’s changing the eyeglasses prescription paradigm.

Opternative is a company that has been approved to offer online eye exams that you can do in your home in other words, it's figured out how to let people self-test. 

Opternative turns a medical procedure from something performed in a physical location near the patient (aka the customer) to a cloud-based service available anywhere, anytime, for $40 ($60 if you want a contact lens prescription). 

The first effect of this cloud-based offering would be to reduce demand for optometry services, which in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was a field with 33,000 members a relatively small number. However, this is nowhere near the likely total economic impact of Opternative. It holds the very real potential of dramatically changing the way revenue is distributed throughout the eyewear industry. In other words, disrupting the existing vision correction industry by displacing the prime role of optometrists in examination and dispensing prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses. 

Traditionally, optometrists perform exams, and, for the vast majority of customers, sell them their glasses/contacts as well (in many cases, through an affiliated, on premises optician). While there have been dispensaries that could sell eyewear without also performing the exam, there was a lot of friction in the process, much of it imposed by optometrists themselves. 

Optometrists typically resist giving the customer his or her prescription, citing potential health issues if the prescription is used to source eyewear elsewhere. While this might be a valid concern, it's also likely that the majority of optometrist revenue is realized by selling eyewear, not performing exams, so the reluctance to share prescriptions might be attributed more to income protection than to possible medical concerns. 

With Opternative, customers can now source their eyewear from any provider...including, of course, an optician. However, it's more likely that prospective customers will turn to a low-cost local provider, one that specializes in high volume and lower prices (and, of course, from online boutiques like Warby Parker). 

How big a market is this? According to Essilor, the leading manufacturer and wholesale distributor of optical lenses in the U.S., more than half the adult population wears glasses (a number that only increases as people get older). By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, if one assumes an average cost of $250 per pair of glasses, this is potentially a more than $43 billion market. By reducing the role of the optometrist at the top of the eyewear value chain, Opternative could affect the direction and size of the revenue stream away from current market leaders to a new set of providers. 

Put another way, by migrating a portion of the existing value chain from the physical to the cloud, there will be a huge impact across the entire industry. 


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