As a senior mechanical engineering student at Bucknell, Adam Anderson recognized that he had the knowledge to create new technologies that could solve basic problems in developing countries. He spent the next two years completing his Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering through assessing the sustainability of eye care programs in developing nations, and out of this, the Project for Sustainable Eye Care was born.
Throughout this process, Charles Kim, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, actively advised Adam on his designs for a diagnostic device and a lens grinder. When the pair realized that there was more to implementing a successful technology than just the engineering, Jamie Hendry, Associate Professor of Management, became involved. The need for professional input soon became clear, and local optometrist, Bob Lipski became a part of the ProSEC team. The group first embarked on a trip to Lake Atitlan, Gautemala in August 2011, with the help from Christ Wesleyan Church. During this trip, the team recreated their lens grinder using local materials and local knowledge and collected data on frame style preferences from residents.
When the team returned to Bucknell, there was work to do. The trip had determined the feasibility of the project, now a larger team was needed. A mechanical engineering senior design project was created to continue the development of the eye care technology, and a management team was developed in order to determine how an eye care business should function in rural Guatemala. The next trip to Lake Atitlan occurred in March 2012. During this trip the team learned more about the business climate in San Pedro La Laguna, the reliability of the diagnostic device under different circumstances, and how residents of the area typically obtain eye glasses. The team also diagnosed and supplied glasses to a number of people in need.
The team returned to Guatemala in May 2013 with the help of Jordi Comas and Eric Martin, two of Bucknell’s management professors. Using existing connections, the team was able to identify patients who needed eye care prior to the trip. During the trip, these patients were diagnosed, and some received glasses if the supplies were available. Many interviews were conducted to learn the specifics about obtaining eye care, the legal process of establishing a business, and style preferences. Unfortunately, the ProSEC team also was handily defeated in a soccer match against San Pedro residents. Hopefully, the ProSEC soccer team will redeem itself next trip.
In March 2014, combining multifaceted research methods, the ProSEC team conducted an in-depth analysis of the market around Lake Atitlan. To fully understand consumer preferences, the team conducted a multi-dimensional research approach in five locations around Lake Atitlan to answer the following questions: How many people wear glasses? What styles currently exist? What frame styles did Guatemalans prefer for themselves? What styles did Guatemalans perceive to look best on others? What were glasses wearers opinions of their existing frames?
Of the 5,000 general observations of foot traffic, the team found that approximately 6% of individuals wore glasses. Of these 6%, the most prevalent frame styles were rectangular and ovular (93%) and the majority of frames were metal or wire (82%). From the 75 in-depth interviews of glasses wearers, the team found that style and price were both huge factors in consumers’ buying behaviors – the price of glasses was set at two extremes. Affordable eye care ran at ~US$3 but sacrificed quality, while durable and stylish frames ran at upwards of ~US$300, and required buyers to sacrifice other necessities if purchased at all. There was no obvious middle-ground option.
Also of importance is the prevalence of transition lenses and intricate temple design. Of the glasses wearers observed, approximately 45% appeared to have transition lenses and many women tended to wear intricate designs on their glasses’ side temples. Since the researchers did not yet consider this variable before making the trip, there was not yet a scale to identify the different styles, but the finding is certainly of great interest to the team. The researchers immediately presented this information to their engineering partners for consideration, and the team plans to look into these lenses and frames in the future.
ProSEC aims to discover the most effective organizational structures and processes to best create shared value, distribute high volumes of affordable eye care, and promote social entrepreneurship. The project strays from pure philanthropy and charity, and more closely encompasses collective action and solidarity. Thus far, the team confirmed the need for proper vision correction, created practical tools to diagnose and create lenses, and uncovered the importance of aesthetics through market research. Through the Spring of 2015, the ProSEC team has worked to find partners to help implement their technology and market research effectively in developing areas. They have continued to explore various business models including those in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, as well as hybrids between them. Additionally, they have developed a DIY mission trip model, where rather than establishing and maintaining a social venture, the mission-in-a-box approach allows for a wider reach using existing communication channels. The ProSEC team could act as consultants, and create a vehicle for existing groups to flourish.