Did you hear the one about the engineer, the chemist and the trauma surgeon who walked into a bar and came out with a new company? It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it is the true story of how Tangible Science came to be.
Actually, right before they walked into the bar, they first met late at night in a research lab, where they bonded dissecting rabbit eyes (true story). CEO Vic McCray (the surgeon) and COO Brandon Felkins (the engineer) were partnered in the renowned Stanford BioDesign program; their assignment was to identify a need in ophthalmology and develop a solution for it. That’s where the rabbit eyes come in.
As part of their exploration they were in the lab late one night, when in walked Karen Havenstrite (Chief Technical Officer), at the time a Stanford PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering (ergo, the chemist). They got to talking – Vic and Brandon about their observation that dry eye was a huge unmet need, and Karen about her work on how cells behaved in response to different materials. By chance, she had recently attended a seminar on contact lens surface properties, so she was primed for the topic. Their conversation carried over into late night drinks, and the rest is history.
“We spent months shadowing optometrists and ophthalmologists, looking at all pathologies and disease states within ophthalmology,” said Brandon. “It seemed like every day, there were patients coming in and complaining about dryness and discomfort, and the doctors had no good solution for them.”
“We got really interested in dry eye disease. We realized there was a huge population of patients who suffer from contact lens-induced dry eye that wasn’t being addressed.”
Said Karen, “There was this perfect ‘a ha’ moment for me. In my PhD work, I had seen that cells are very sensitive to the material they’re sitting on and they really liked the ones that matched their normal home. I realized I could take all this stuff I learned and apply a biological perspective to solve this eye care problem.”
“Throughout the history of contact lenses, the eye care industry had focused on developing lenses with properties they thought were important – for example, they felt that lenses needed to have a significant amount of water content for comfort, so all of today’s contact lenses mix in water,” explained Vic.
“We thought about the problem differently – a biological approach rather than a chemical approach. We looked at the eye and what it normally does to stay moist and healthy. It has components that help hold water on the surface and prevent evaporation, and components that keep the eye very slippery and keep friction low every time we blink. We wanted to design a lens surface that mimics what the eye does naturally.”
The end result was Tangible Hydra-PEG, a breakthrough coating designed to improve any contact lens by improving wettability, increasing surface water retention, reducing friction on the eye, and minimizing deposits on the lens.
Chief Operating Officer
Vic McCray, MD
President & Chief Executive Officer
Chief Technical Officer
The coating was launched commercially in January 2017 and has been adopted by virtually every major custom contact lens lab in the U.S. and is beginning to gain adoption internationally. This has allowed the coating to reach a wide customer base of optometrists and opticians.
Says Brandon, “None of us had really known about the custom contact lens market. This is a niche population of patients that have to wear specialty lenses because they are already dealing with challenging ocular issues. Having to suffer from dryness and discomfort on top of those existing ocular issues is really adding insult to injury. We’ve developed a product for them and are actually solving a really compelling and impactful clinical need. It turns out it’s also good at improving comfort for virtually any patient, not just the specialty lens wearers.”
“The first time we heard a testimonial from a patient who had significant contact lens discomfort and used our technology, they told us how it had changed their life – that was a real turning point for our company,” said Vic.
That was the first of many grateful Tangible Hydra-PEG patients.
“Last week, a woman called and told us that she had to retire because her lenses were so uncomfortable, and because of us, she’s actually able to go back to work – she wanted us to know how much we had changed her life. A few months before that, somebody called and told me that we’d answered their prayers,” said Karen.
The founders feel the success of the company is due, in large part, to their non-traditional way of working.
“We’re really different in our personalities and backgrounds, but we have a lot in common. Vic is driven and very good at executing. Karen is the stereotypical mad scientist – a brilliant chemist but spilling coffee everywhere and losing her car keys. I’m more even keel and bridge everyone. But all three of us are very comfortable with risk. We’re very open to trying new things. We promote a culture of intellectual curiosity, not just among ourselves, but among everyone who works here. We just keep pulling threads and we’re persistent in finding creative, scrappy ways to solve problems,” said Brandon.
A perfect example is how they developed their proof of concept, using Jell-O.
“To make a mold for lenses is about $10,000 and we had little money in the beginning. So, I came up with this really funny idea – to essentially take Jell-O liquid, put a lens in it, solidify it, and then cookie cutter out the lens so we would be left with this perfectly lens-shaped hole. This allowed us to make thousands of prototypes for testing our coating on the cheap and prove to the big companies and labs that this idea could work,” said Karen.
“We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and sometimes when you don’t know, it just allows you to dream bigger and not be inhibited by challenges.”
Now, seven years after they first met, their enthusiasm for the company and its mission remains high.
“What I’m really passionate about is taking science out of the lab and getting it into the world where it can actually help people,” said Karen.
“Everyone at Tangible Science is extremely proud of the work that we’re doing. Not only that, but we’ve been able to engage the broader contact lens community and now we are all working together to improve comfort for patients wearing custom lenses,” said Brandon.
Said Vic, “I expect Tangible Science to have an impact that changes this industry. We hope to create technologies that will strengthen the relationship between doctors and patients and better enable doctors to meet their needs.”
The story of Tangible Science is a unique one – a company focused on patient comfort, that is comfortable being uncomfortable.
“Tangible Science is an approachable company that’s out to help and do good. We are open to feedback, suggestions and criticism, and love to hear people’s experience. If anyone reading wants to engage with us, we want to hear from them,” said Vic.