University of Rochester

$3 Million Gift From 'Father' of Laser Vision Correction Boosts Plans for New Optics/Biomedical Engineering Building Project

February 19, 2003

A gift of $3 million from Charles R. Munnerlyn, a graduate of the Institute of Optics, will kick off the biggest expansion of department facilities since it was created 74 years ago. Playing to the University of Rochester's strengths, a new 100,000-square-foot building will house scientists studying both optics and biomedical engineering with plenty of overlap-such as in optical medical diagnosis and Munnerlyn's own specialty, laser vision correction.

"We're honored to have Charles initiate this new phase of optics with this, the largest gift in the history of the Institute," says Wayne Knox, professor of optics and director of the Institute of Optics. "His success in merging the optical and medical worlds exemplifies a key theme of this expansion."

Munnerlyn changed the world's concept of vision testing when he designed the first digital device for automatically determining refractive errors in the human eye. Known as one of the founding fathers of laser vision correction, he ushered in one of the fastest growing surgeries performed in the United States-used on more than 1.4 million eyes last year alone. After years of toil and millions of dollars, Munnerlyn and a small group of engineering and medical colleagues founded VISX, a company that is now the world's largest manufacturer of laser-based vision correction systems.

"People talk about whether or not they use their education," says Munnerlyn, who graduated in 1969. "I think I've used it rather continuously. The things I learned in optics I applied to my career. I feel that donating something back is a worthwhile thing to do. I'd also like to support the new collaboration between optics and biomedical engineering because my career has bridged these areas. I feel strongly about the future of biomedical optics and would like to encourage it because I think it will benefit mankind in many ways."

The institute's expansion is spearheaded by Knox, a former director of Advanced Photonics Research at Lucent Technologies, who joined the University as director of the institute in 2001. He's focusing on enhancing both the pure research conducted at Rochester as well as the ability of the University to create new, revenue-producing technology. As industry starts cutting back on its own research and development, it is turning to academe to fill the need.

The optics expansion includes a new proposed technology transfer program called the Center for Institute Ventures, which will be run in the new facility and will help produce local high-tech spin-off companies. Investors would come to Rochester looking for help in the development of a new biomedical product; and University researchers would carry out research and prototyping, and then test it in conjunction with the University's world-class medical center. The researchers would be given a stake in the new technology, but could retain their status as University researchers. Startup companies would spin out into local high tech incubators, creating high quality jobs. This makes it much more likely that new companies will be founded in the Rochester area.

The total building project is estimated at $30 million, and a $3 million challenge grant in support of the joint building project has been secured by the Biomedical Engineering Department from the Whitaker Foundation. "We're very optimistic that other parties will come forward and help us. Optics and medicine are two of the great historic strengths of Rochester, so it makes a lot of sense to emphasize these areas," says Knox.

"This gift represents a perfect example of the cycle of higher education," says Charles Phelps, provost of the University. "Here, a student's training, supported by gifts of those who preceded him, helps him develop a wonderful product that benefits many, many people. And then, with the fruits of that invention, he adds to the strength of the institute with his own gift, which will in turn help those who follow him."

"This doesn't make the building," says Munnerlyn, speaking of his gift. "It starts the process. What I'm really doing is trying to encourage other people to step up and contribute to a facility that combines basic optic capabilities with biomedical applications."

After graduating from the Institute of Optics with an engineering doctorate, Munnerlyn stayed in the Rochester area as head of research and development for Tropel, a company that designed prototype custom lenses for applications that included Xerox copiers, Polaroid cameras, satellites, and semiconductor photolithography. In the early 1970s, he produced the first automatic digital device to measure refractive errors in the eye, as well as a pressure test to detect glaucoma in the eye. In 1983 he began a decade-long endeavor to develop his ideas for laser-based systems for vision correction.

Despite the many frustrations that occurred along the way, Munnerlyn and a colleague, electrical engineer Terry Clapham, put up virtually all their assets as collateral to start the company VISX. It was not until March 1996 that the Food and Drug Administration finally gave VISX commercial approval to use its system to correct near-sightedness, the most common vision problem. In the years since, the company also has gained important FDA approvals to correct farsightedness and astigmatism. While there are several major competitors in the business, most notably ALCON, Nidek, LaserSight, and Bausch & Lomb, VISX has risen to the No. 1 spot in the industry.

Munnerlyn received the University's 2002 School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' Distinguished Alumnus Award for "exemplary contributions to technology, business, education, and society." He was also named the 2001 Engineer of the Year by Design News magazine. He holds 26 U.S. patents in his field.