Focusing on the downside of the digital revolution has helped GUNNAR Optiks raise an undisclosed amount of money from an impressive and eclectic group: PayPal co-founder and angel investor Peter Thiel, rap artist 50 Cent, Monster Cable, Silicon Valley venture capitalist J. Christopher Burch (who co-founded fashion label Tory Burch, with his ex-wife) and Jack Giarraputo, actor Adam Sandler’s partner at Happy Madison Productions, a U.S. film production company.The California-based company makes special eyewear – called GUNNARS – for video gamers and computer users who spend long hours staring at screens.
Jennifer Michelsen was concerned. Her husband Matt was suffering from computer vision syndrome,headaches caused by focusing his eyes on a display screen for protracted, uninterrupted periods of time. If Matt was experiencing problems, Jennifer wondered how time spent on digital devices from an early age would end up impacting the vision of their three young sons.
“My son Gunnar was around three and we were looking at the computer together and I suggested we Google Dragon Tales,” an animated TV series for pre-school children, says Michelsen, a speaker at DLDwomen in Munich July 11-12. “ He just looked at me and said ‘Mom you don’t have to Google it, it is at pbskids.org.’ It hit me, these kids are born into this digital generation. They are going to be using digital devices for all of their education and their entertainment and this is going to be a problem for their eyes.”
Michelsen, who had given up a career in marketing to raise her children, saw the potential to create a new line of glasses specifically designed to reduce digital eye strain. She suggested that Matt team up with a family friend, Joe Croft, a former general manager at Oakley eyewear, and launch a business. Matt, then working at a hedge fund, now the CEO and co-founder of Backplane, a social networking platform backed by Lady Gaga, didn’t have time to do it. So Michelsen decided to build a company, with Croft’s help, and Gunnar Optiks was born in 2006.
The California-based company makes special eyewear – called GUNNARS – for video gamers and computer users who spend long hours staring at screens. Gunnar’s i-AMP lens technology focuses on the human optical system and its interaction with digital devices at specific distances and in specific light.
The glasses have amber-tinted lenses, which make images appear clearer. (Yellow makes images sharper by adding contrast and filtering out blue light.) GUNNARS are shaped to pre-focus the light into the eyes, so the eyes don’t have to do all the work. There’s an anti-glare filter that allows light from the computer in but keeps out distracting reflecting light from other sources. The lenses are also fitted close to the face to create a ‘micro-climate’ that keeps away dry air currents. This helps keep eyes moist by reducing squinting and maintaining a close-to-normal rate of blinking which can cause dryness.
Off-the-shelf versions, which are specifically tuned for mid-range viewing distances, work for people who don’t normally wear glasses. Custom GUNNAR prescriptions are available through Carl Zeiss Vision, a global manufacturer of eyeglass lens.
Although Michelsen says the company is now profitable, scaling up has not been easy. “When you start a retail product that is completely new and did not exist a few years ago, there is a lot of learning, a lot of soul searching,” she says.
It took two years of research and development and working with the optical and medical communities before the first GUNNARS were manufactured. Although they had done a lot of testing and sampling, the company discovered, after going into production, “that the magnification was a little too strong for the average person so we went back to the drawing board,” says Michelsen.
The product soft launched in October of 2008.
“When we were starting out we thought ‘this is a product that everyone needs,’ but it doesn’t quite work like that,” she says. “We have to explain to people ‘here is a problem that you don’t know you have but I have a solution and I am going to sell it to you for roughly $100’.”
Raising money was not simple either. “Anything online, digital or social – that was the hot ticket,” says Michelsen. “Retail products don’t look all that attractive to investors.”
Still, GUNNAR Optiks has managed to raise an undisclosed amount of money from an impressive and eclectic group: PayPal co-founder and angel investor Peter Thiel, rap artist 50 Cent,Monster Cable, Silicon Valley venture capitalist J. Christopher Burch (who co-founded fashion label Tory Burch, with his ex-wife) and Jack Giarraputo, actor Adam Sandler’s partner at Happy Madison Productions, a U.S. film production company.
Once the company raised the funding “our first goal was to gather the optical community around us and get their blessing and support – it is very important that the community agrees with the solution,” says Michelsen.
Today GUNNARS are distributed through catalogs in 29,000 doctor’s offices and can be purchased directly in some of them. They are sold in consumer electronic stores that sell computers and gaming consoles such as Best Buy. And GUNNARS can also be purchased via the company’s website. They are available in 26 countries.
Running a global retail operation while raising Gunnar, now 11, and brothers Gavin, 8, and five-year-old Grant is no easy feat. On a typical day Michelsen says she gets up around 5 a.m. because “that is the only time I have to decompress.” After working out, checking email and showering, she wakes up the kids and turns into a short-order cook, whipping up eggs, smoothies or anything her boys feel like eating, packs lunchs and snacks, feeds the family’s guinea pig, rabbit and chickens, and then drops the kids at school and heads for the office. Michelsen’s not complaining. “Women are incredible at multi-tasking,” she says, “We are built to do that and are strong so when we put our minds to it, we can do amazing things,” she says.
Feeling like she is doing something positive for people’s health is a motivating factor, she says.
Sleek design and buy-in from everybody from celebrities (50 Cent has been known to tweet about the fact that he is wearing GUNNARS) to well-known professional gamers, have helped make the preventative eye-care products she envisioned to protect her children’s eyes “cool.”
Her own sons are happy to wear them and the parents of her children’s friends are asking for discounts for their kids, says Michelsen. “It is the kids that want them, and that is a good thing.”
Technology is evolving and we are all bound to spend more, rather than less, time looking at digital screens, says Michelsen. “But we can’t go to the Mac Store and get new eyeballs, version 6.0. It doesn’t work like that. All you can do is to take steps to protect your eye health and GUNNARS can help you do that.”