Saul Griffith's vision may help millions of people see better.
The Media Lab graduate student has invented a machine to make low-cost prescription eyeglass lenses for people in the developing world who can't afford them now.
The portable device, about the size of a snare drum, has a programmable mold that forms an acrylic lens in the exact shape prescribed by an optometrist. Griffith won the Collegiate Inventors Competition for his invention and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame last month. He and a friend, Neil Houghton, won the Harvard Business School business plan contest in 2001 for their proposed company, Low Cost Eyeglasses, which they hope will market the eyeglasses in Africa, India, South America and other parts of the developing world.
Griffith said he made the machine from "stuff I could find around the house." For instance, the flexible mold changes shape when Griffith pushes the plunger on a large syringe that injects baby oil into a small rubber tube leading to the mold.
The machine is an alternative to the far more expensive injection molding, which requires that a separate mold be produced for each eyeglass prescription. And while this machine is designed specifically for molding lenses, the concept would work for other uses as well, said Griffith, who imagines that mass-produced dolls could be individualized by giving each a discrete face.
Griffith went to Guyana in 2001 with the Midland (Texas) Lions Club, which had collected used eyeglasses for distribution in Africa. He said he was frustrated by the difficulty of matching a person's vision needs to glasses from the collected batch.
"If you do find the exact prescription match, you might be placing a pair of large, rose-tinted women's glasses on a strapping young man whose girlfriend giggles when he turns around to show her," said Griffith. "It was mostly in frustration with that initiative and its low-quality product" that he developed his system for making new glasses in the field.
"I think the hearts of the Lions Club are in the right place, but as with a lot of those aid programs they do not account for all their costs and so the economies are false. And second-hand glasses are ultimately not very good," he said.
He received $20,000 for winning the Collegiate Inventors Competition; his thesis advisor Professor Joseph Jacobson received $10,000. (Griffith's thesis research is actually on "programmable self-assembly, how to make things automatically make things," he said.)
The money "almost pays my library fines," said the 27-year-old researcher from Sidney, Australia, who negotiated a $2,740 fine down to $130. "But I was pretty uncomfortable for a few days." Actually he plans to put the prize money back into the company, which he hopes can work around the political difficulties of doing business in the developing world and help the estimated one billion people who need prescription eyeglasses but can't afford them.
"If we could make a self-sustaining project that makes glasses for kids in India, that'd be great. And I'd go make money someplace else," said Griffith.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 18, 2002.