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Ovitz’s Student Entrepreneurs: Rise to Top with Their EyeProfiler

October 1, 2014
Ovitz team photo

Members of the student-led company Ovitz—Pedro Vallejo-Ramirez ’16, Joung Yoon (Felix) Kim ’14, Samuel Steven ’13, graduate student Aizhong Zhang, Len Zheleznyak ’05, ’06 (MS), and Nicolas Brown ’16 (left to right)—strike a pose with a portable eye-diagnosis instrument that they developed and are working to commercialize. Developed with the Institute of Optics and the Flaum Eye Institute, the “EyeProfiler” is designed to be smaller, cheaper, and more accurate than existing devices and especially suited for use with children.

When Joung Yoon (Felix) Kim ’14 looked for team members to help him launch his company, he did what many savvy CEOs do: He looked for people “smarter than I am” in key areas of expertise.

Rochester Teams Compete for $5 Million in Prizes

Ovitz is one of three University companies competing for a $1 million first-place prize in Buffalo’s 43North business competition The final competition takes place Oct. 30 in Buffalo.

The competition, which named 113 semifinalists this summer, also offers six $500,000 prizes, and four $250,000 prizes plus no state taxes for 10 years, incubator space for a year, and coaching and mentoring from industry experts. Winners have to give up 5 percnet equity and remain in Buffalo for one year.

The Rochester semifinalists are:

  • Ovitz, which specializes in novel and portable ophthalmic devices, including the EyeProfiler which determines an accurate prescription for corrective lenses and is smaller, cheaper and more accurate than currently existing devices. Team members include Joung Yoon (Felix) Kim ’14, Pedro Vallejo-Ramirez ’16, Samuel Steven ’13, ’14 (MS), Len Zheleznyak ’05, ’14 (PhD), and Ana Garcia Leyva ’14.
  • SmartDialysis, which produces a nanomembrane technology-based portable hemodialysis unit to improve the quality of life of over 600,000 end-stage renal disease patients in the United States. Team members include Li (Adam) Deng ’14 (MS), doctoral student Steven Gillmer, doctoral student Kenneth Goodfellow ’14 (MS), doctoral student Aizhong Zhang ’14 (MS), and Bowei Zhang ’14 (MS).
  • Health Care Originals, which has created a non–invasive, convenient, and easily integrated method for asthma management, founded by Sharon Samjitsingh ’13 (MS).
  • Clerisy Corp., which creates Aromahaler Nasal Soft Strips, an aroma therapy nasal strip that delivers oils and vapors believed to have health benefits. The cofounder, president, and CEO is Mary Maida ’02M (PhD), a coach in a technical entrepreneurship class taught by Duncan Moore, the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor in Optical Engineering Science and vice provost for entrepreneurship, and Jim Senall, the president of High Technology Rochester.

The final competition will take place in Buffalo on October 30. The winners announcement event is free and open to the public but attendees must register online

He didn’t pay that much attention to their GPAs, though initially all were fellow students at the Institute of Optics or in the TEAM (Technical Entrepreneurship and Management) master’s program. Instead, he asked them what they liked doing before they came to the University of Rochester.

If the software candidate said he’d worked with computers since he was a teen, for example, or if the presentation candidate said he enjoyed debating in high school, Kim picked them.

That’s how he knew they really loved what they were doing. That’s how he knew it was “in their blood.”

So far, Kim’s intuition—about his team, about the portable EyeProfiler device they plan to market next spring—is paying off.

The Ovitz team’s string of success in local and state business plan competitions culminated in May with a first-place finish at the Rochester Regional Business Plan Contest. The prize included $25,000 in cash; a year of incubation services and office space from High Tech Rochester, which sponsored the contest; and services worth $2,500 from a Rochester marketing, advertising, and public relations company.

This fall the Ovitz team will begin final product development of the EyeProfiler. When pointed at someone’s eyes, this hand-held device can produce, in a matter of seconds, an accurate prescription for glasses or lenses. The potential applications are staggering.

Ovitz will initially market the device for testing nonverbal infants or aging individuals who have trouble providing feedback necessary for the testing now used. As the company becomes established and starts generating sufficient revenue, Kim says, the plan is to donate devices to improve vision care in underdeveloped countries.

Ultimately, the EyeProfiler could streamline vision testing in optometrists’ offices around the world and perhaps be used in telemedicine.

Though the Ovitz saga is still unfolding, it highlights many of the advantages the University of Rochester and the Hajim School can offer to students, including:

  • opportunities to engage in multidisciplinary research, even as undergraduates, with talented faculty, many of whom are pioneers in their field
  • encouragement and support for entrepreneurially inclined students like Kim to translate research to the marketplace.

The EyeProfiler is based, in part, on a design developed by Geunyoung Yoon, associate professor of ophthalmology, in the Center for Visual Science, and of optics. Kim and his team made several modifications to come up with a more compact, accurate device.

Ovitz has since hired Joseph Rosenshein as vice president and CTO. Rosenshein has nearly 30 years of experience in ophthalmological research, development, and clinical research. Walter Rusnak, an advisory board member, brings a similar wealth of experience in financial management and corporate governance. Other members of the team are still undergraduates—and relishing the “real-world” insights they are gaining.

“You learn a lot about building companies by actually doing it,” says Nick Brown ’15, who designs and programs the software algorithms used in the device and also handles Ovitz’s IT. “I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about the link between the business world and technical world, which is very valuable for solving applied problems.”

The diverse team that has resulted from the addition of more senior members is also a plus, he says. “Everyone, young and older, has learned from each other and push each other with everything we do,” Brown says. “It’s both a great opportunity to work on an engaging project with your peers and also interact with people outside of the normal student demographic.”

Pedro Vallejo-Ramirez ’16, the youngest member of the team who does marketing and relations, said he’s learned a lot from his more experienced partners, “listening to their life stories, their work habits, and their advice.” He’s learned to make productive use of his time but also to relax. He’s also learned the value “of fostering close friendships and of building a network of individuals you trust.”

“Ovitz has helped me become more conscious of those around me; it makes me focus less on myself and more on my interactions with others. It has made me a little more reckless, a little more relaxed, and a whole lot more passionate about optics, business, and innovation.”

Other members of the team are Samuel Steven ’13 (’14 TEAM) and Len Zheleznyak ’05 (’06 MS, ’14 PhD).

Kim says the team’s youthfulness is to its advantage. “We want to be the student pioneers— brave enough, creative enough, and crazy enough to do this.” They are certainly off to a good start.

“Ovitz was able to effectively demonstrate that its portable ophthalmic equipment can achieve higher accuracy at a faster rate and cheaper price than current equipment used in an optometrist’s office,” says Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of Excell Partners Inc., and one of the three judges at the Rochester Regional Business Plan Contest. “The team was represented by a good balance of young scientists and seasoned businessmen. All in all, the judges saw an exciting new technology with a balanced management team and a large addressable market.”

“It was the one presentation where it seemed the judges had to think a bit longer to come up with a question, since they had received such a thorough explanation of the company and plan,” adds Susanna Virgilio, marketing specialist and program manager with the Center for Entrepreneurship, who attended the team’s presentation.

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