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Do-it-yourself eye exams? This startup sees a way

Warby Parker revolutionized how young, savvy consumers purchase eyeglasses. Now a Chicago startup hopes to transform the way they get eye exams.

Aaron Dallek and Steven Lee, founders of Opternative Inc., say they are developing the first online exam to deliver an accurate, valid prescription. The idea leaves a lot of onlookers scratching their heads, but investors are enthusiastic: The company just landed $1 million in seed funding led by Chicago Ventures and New York-based Tribeca Venture Partners.

“If they can pull this off, it's definitely one of the more innovative and disruptive ideas I've seen come out of Chicago — and not just Chicago — in a long time,” says Stuart Larkins, Chicago Ventures co-founder and partner. “This is one of those ideas you get excited about.”

Mr. Dallek, 30, a serial entrepreneur who created his first company at age 14, partnered with Mr. Lee, 35, an optometrist who began designing the Opternative tool in 2009, two years after graduating from optometry school. “I realized there had to be a better way,” Mr. Lee says.

What makes their remote testing possible is a proprietary algorithm that they say produces the same results as an in-office refractory exam, where a patient looks through a machine containing lenses of varying strengths and reads from an eye chart.

NO FUSS, NO MUSS

The process works like this: A user calibrates the test to the size of his or her computer screen using a credit card and then steps back from the computer (Opternative asks for your shoe size and has you measure paces accordingly). The system begins projecting images the founders say are a significant improvement over the old-school “What's better, one or two?” machine in the doctor's office. The test-taker answers Opternative's questions by using his or her smartphone as a remote control.

The exam takes five to 10 minutes. The customer also must provide his or her medical history. The test results then are sent to an eye doctor in Opternative's network for verification, and a signed prescription is emailed to the user within 24 hours. The cost, say Messrs. Dallek and Lee, will be about $35 — or 75 percent less than a trip to LensCrafters.

The company is beta-testing its service with about 1,000 users. Down the line, Mr. Dallek says, Opternative wants to partner with universities to conduct double-blind studies to compare Opternative's accuracy to traditional refractory exams.

The establishment is skeptical. The American Optometric Association warns on its website that “anyone claiming to perform an eye exam without physically examining a patient is offering insufficient, ambiguous information and is contributing to a patient believing — incorrectly — that his or her eye health needs have been met.”

Opternative's backers suggest conventional practitioners are just scared. “This is one more way that technology is taking a hatchet to old analog processes,” says Brian Hirsch, co-founder and managing partner of Tribeca Venture Partners.