The startup journey is often a sprint, a mad dash to raise capital and release products. But augmented reality startup Innovega is betting that slow and steady will win the race.
The company generated a lot of buzz a few years ago around its augmented reality (AR) glasses and contact lens system eMacula — previously called iOptik — which has been in development since 2008. But for the past three years, Innovega has been flying under the radar as it quietly raises capital and prepares for eMacula’s commercial launch.
Innovega co-founder and CEO Steve Willey tells GeekWire that the startup just closed a funding round of about $3 million led by Chinese digital media giant Tencent, parent company of the popular social media platform WeChat. Former Tencent CTO Jeff Xiong also serves on Innovega’s board, and Willey said China will be an important market for eMacula. This is the first private funding the startup has sought, having previously received funds from DARPA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. It brings Innovega’s total funding to about $10 million, Willey said.
He also said eMacula has completed necessary clinical trials and is pending review by the FDA. Because the system involves a contact lens, it must be approved before the startup can begin commercializing it.
As Willey explains, the company has been playing the long game because it is pushing for an augmented reality system unlike any on the market. “The consumer’s got an extremely demanding specification, and we took that as something we needed to meet,” Willey said. In other words, the company asked: how can we develop an AR device with good optics that is also lightweight, comfortable, looks cool, and don’t run out of battery constantly? Innovega’s answer was a tiny screen and an even smaller lens.
Here’s how it works: a one-square-inch screen is attached to the inside of a pair of glasses, sitting about half an inch from the wearer’s face. At that distance, our eyes can’t naturally focus on the screen. So Innovega developed a high-powered contact lens that adjusts the wearer’s vision so she can focus on objects extremely close to her face. This high-powered lens also corrects vision like a normal contact lens and can be worn with or without AR glasses. The versatility of the system means it could also be used to view media projected directly onto the lenses of glasses, Willey said.
He said the company is focusing on the platform’s hardware, and will work with other groups to link it to various media sources, such as smartphones. This means eMacula could be used in a variety of settings, including in the military. The startup actually began work on the system by winning a bid from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“We did work in the defense community because they had a very similar problem,” Willey said. “They said, ‘we’ve got these so-called War Fighters, and they’re wearing these Oakley-style field glasses. And we’ve got media galore from satellites and cameras and drones, but how do we get it to the troops in the field?’ ”
Although the startup has since parted ways with DARPA to pursue a commercial product, Willey said there was the possibility the military could use an adapted version of the eMacula system after it has been launched commercially. He also said the high-powered contact lenses could be used in a medical setting, to correct vision in certain patients.
Innovega was founded in 2008 by Willey, optometrist Dr. Jerome Legerton, now the company’s Chief Clinical and Regulatory Officer, and Randall Sprague, who has since left the company. The startup’s headquarters are in Bellevue, Wash., with two manufacturing facilities in California and about 10 employees spread between the two states.