A Rare Retinal Disease Diagnosis Led Him to Develop New Assistive Tech for the Visually Impaired

Courtesy: Zuby Onwuta

By Jenna Milliner-Waddell

“When I said I could make eyesight better just by thinking, no one believed me,” Zuby Onwuta says.

Onwuta is the founder of Think and Zoom, a hands-free visual magnification tool powered by brain waves. He developed a software that pairs the functionality of a Neurosky EEG headset with a digital device that has a camera, an operating system, and a display. The headset detects your focus and signals the display — Google Glass, a phone, or a tablet — to zoom in. By just blinking, a picture is captured allowing the software to zoom.

Onwuta and his growing team are now operating with the mission to create a world where visual impairment no longer steals dreams or kills careers through affordable innovations for the estimated 253 million visually impaired inviduals across the globe.

Think and Zoom officially launched in 2015, which was the conclusion to Onwuta’s years of searching to improve his own visual impairment. He moved to the United States from Nigeria after high school with the hope of becoming a medical doctor with no knowledge that he would develop three eye conditions that would lead him to flunk out of school — killing his medical dreams — and take him out of his United States Army and corporate engineering careers.

Onwuta first recognized his visual impairment as his eyesight fluctuated. Things he could see one day, all factors being the same, would be impossible to see the next with no explanation. After traveling across the country, meeting with nearly 300 eyecare professionals, he found his answer at Johns Hopkins University in 2012 where he learned he had rare retinal disease, Stargardt, and cone and rod dystrophy. He left with a diagnosis and went to work.

“I wanted a solution that could detect that I was struggling, figure out the level of struggle and respond with the level of magnification I need on demand without me having to do anything,” he says.

Zuby Onwuta with Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind Harvard Law graduate, at the 2017 Ruderman Family Foundation Inclusion Summit. Courtesy: Zuby Onwuta Twitter

Over the next three years he worked on creating Think and Zoom, but even with a finished product now, don’t expect to see this wearable tech hit the retail market.

“Cost analysis shows that to deploy this would be about $20,000 retail,” Onwuta says, based on other global nerve monitoring devices.

Because Think and Zoom was developed on intuition and with very little market research, Onwuta went back to the drawing board turning his design into a company. Think and Zoom is currently in the first phase of the National Science Foundations I-Corps program at the University of Texas at Austin where the team can explore the potential value of their product and develop a commercialization strategy. Think and Zoom was named as one of Austin Inno’s 2017 50 on Fire and a 2016 Pitch Black winner.

In addition to advisory support from the program, and his connections and networks from courses at MIT and Harvard, Onwuta brought on Samantha Wellington, a recent UT Austin graduate, to make this vision a reality. The 23-year-old has a degree in mechanical engineering but is focused on the operations side of Think and Zoom.

“We are trying to define who our customers are right now,” Wellington says. “Zuby made a product but couldn’t turn it into a business so he wanted to go back to step one and start over, so right now we are defining who our customers are and who will pay us to start this business.”

Santiago Velasquez is in the same spot with his own startup, EyeSyght, which he too is looking to secure funding for. Velasquez is a friend of Onwuta and tackling blind assistive technology from the southern hemisphere in Australia. The 22-year-old immigrated there about 9 years ago from Colombia and currently studying electrical engineering at Queensland University of technology where he started this project turned business.

“At the moment anyone who is visually impaired, and wants to get any sort of graphical content, everything has to be printed out using braille and it takes time,” Velasquez says. “So I thought why don’t we build a display for the visually impaired so everything that appears on a screen and that people can see, we can simply touch it and have the same content at the same time.”

His device connects to a phone or computer and uses electrical impulses to mimic lines and different textures to recreate what’s being rendered on the screen into something you can touch.

Like Onwuta, Velasquez’s passion for assistive technology is a personal one. He was born blind, which he says is difficult because of established processes and systems that aren’t accessible to people with low vision, but says it’s not impossible. He uses the pain as encouragement and rejects the idea that low vision is an impairment and rather a barrier the sighted world put up.