Affordable glasses with lenses that need no prescription

Teams in the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge hope to boost technology through budding businesses

March 16, 2016 Marc Ballon

Stephanie Fong ’15 has long wanted to make a difference. That’s why she studied biomedical engineering as an undergraduate. That’s also why she and Joycelyn Yip ’15 jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge.

Unlike other business model competitions, the Min Challenge focuses as much on addressing major social issues as with profit making.

As part of the competition, Fong and Yip, now graduate students at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, have co-founded a startup called FlexSpecs. The goal: produce inexpensive eyeglasses with adjustable lenses that require no prescription.

“We have spoken to potential customers here in Los Angeles in the College Park area who have told us how their children are struggling in school or how they or their spouse can’t find jobs because they can’t afford glasses,” said Fong, who hopes to sell FlexSpecs for about $50 a pair. “I think that’s unconscionable.”

In late February, the Min Challenge awarded grants of up to $10,000 to FlexSpecs and three other startups in the social entrepreneurship contest. The budding business-builders can use the money for in-depth customer research, development or a combination thereof. FlexSpecs plans to spend its $3,600 to develop a prototype.

Other awardees include:

  • Drops, an iPhone app that lets users round up credit and debit card purchases, donating the difference from the purchase price to a charity of choice.
  • MedZango, a mobile app that lets patients record real-time physical discomfort and medical symptoms and translates them into meaningful data for physicians.
  • OptDX, automates the screening process for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). By using retinal scans and an image-based machine-learning algorithm, OptDX can identify high-risk cases of ROP, the leading cause of childhood blindness.

Winners to come

On April 13, the Min Challenge will announce the third- and fourth-place teams, based on the viability of their business models and quality of customer and market research. First and second place will be announced a week later at the Viterbi Awards. Nearly $30,000 in prize money is at stake.

Twenty-six teams applied to the Min Challenge, reflecting the growing interest among students in leveraging technology and the tools of business to address global issues ranging from access to clean water to affordable energy to health.

I’m excited that we have seen such a strong interest in using engineering to solve social problems.

Andrea Belz

“I’m excited that we have seen such a strong interest in using engineering to solve social problems,” said Andrea Belz, director of the National Science Foundation-funded Innovation Node–Los Angeles and entrepreneur in residence at USC Viterbi.

Practical experience

The Min Challenge launched in October with a gift from Bryan Min ’86, a member of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors, and his family. Since then, participants have attended workshops developed by Innovation Node-Los Angeles and focused on customer acquisition, business modeling, interviewing techniques and social entrepreneurship. Each team must have at least one USC Viterbi undergraduate or graduate student.

The challenge is patterned after and run in collaboration with the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition. For instance, MEPC and Min Challenge participants mostly attend the same seminars taught by professors affiliated with MEPC and the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab.

Even if Min Challenge teams fail to form successful businesses, “these students will have learned to focus on product- and customer-centric questions, to test their ideas in the real world and to rapidly make changes to their business models so they can satisfy their customers’ needs,” said Juan Felipe Vallejo, Min Challenge project administrator. “They will take these skills with them for the rest of their lives.”

The need for social entrepreneurship has never been greater, said Adlai Wertman, professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall School of Business and founding director of the Brittingham Soical Enterprise Lab.

Wertman taught the Min Challenge class on social entrepreneurship, including how to define a company’s mission and maximize its social impact. He feels heartened to see engineering and other students grapple with the important issues of our day.

“We’ve got these series of serious and big social problems in the world, and they are bigger than can ever be solved by traditional philanthropy alone,” Wertman said. “We just don’t have enough money to give away to adequately address them.”

That’s where entrepreneurs like FlexSpecs’ Fong and the other Min Challenge participants come in.

“I want to do good through technology, to find simple but effective solutions that create change,” Fong said.