Vectors Angel
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Vectors Angel

The Company Using AI to Solve Colorblindness and More

By Sachi Koide and Shreyas Krishnaswamy

Have you ever watched one of those videos of colorblind people seeing color for the first time?

A color blind dad puts on the correcting glasses and experiences the world in full brilliance for the first time in his life. A kid gets a pair from his principal and scrunches up his face with emotion. A Youtuber films his first reaction. “That’s blue?!” “What color is that, inside the flower? Oh, it’s cream!” Often they cry, because they’ve never seen the world so beautiful. Every time, they hop from object to object with the wonderment of a child.

An astounding 1 out of every 12 men and 1 out of every 200 women is colorblind. Strongly colorblind people might only be able to tell about 20 hues apart from each other. Normal color vision allows more than 100.

Now imagine the incredible powers of seeing 500% more colors… in a contact lens. Imagine that life-changing technology in everyday eyeglasses. Imagine color enhancing lenses that literally change how you see the world with normal vision. And blue light-blocking lenses that themselves remain completely colorless and fashionable (without that ugly yellow tint).

These are only a few of the many products that the revolutionary optics technology company Hue.Ai is creating, and these amazing products aren’t even the most exceptional things about this company.

The Beauty of Artificial Intelligence

As you might be able to tell from the name, Hue.Ai is an artificial intelligence technology company. They are completely unique in the optics industry because they use of artificial intelligence to improve lives by developing re-imagined vision and color products. They are taking the same AI that is transforming industries like space exploration, robotics, and medical science and combining it with color science to develop the world’s first AI system for optical performance. Hue.Ai is pushing the boundaries of sunglasses, spectacles, contact lenses and more.

How the AI works: Their proprietary technology quickly runs through thousands of simulations of chemistry and physical form to create the optimal design. Then lab technicians can take these optimized designs and create prototypes almost identical to what the final product will be. This process takes much fewer people and much less time than the traditional industry standard of trial and error from the very beginning of the process.

Hue.Ai has got the attention of the biggest names in the industry. Look at the brand names in all the stores at the mall, and all the commercials on social media– Hue.Ai is a small company coming in fast, and they’re in talks to provide products to the biggest players across the globe.

The Industry

The optics industry is highly consolidated but segregated between four different, billion-dollar industries. These include: Fashion and Regular Sunglasses, Prescription Eyewear, Contact Lenses, and Medical Cataract Surgeries.

Fashion and Regular Sunglasses

Global Market Size: $14.5B (all of these refer to global market size in 2018.) With a 2.3% projected global CAGR through 2025, this sector is growing alongside increasing disposable income and rising preference for luxury goods. Two major players in this industry include the Luxottica Group and the Safilo Group.

Prescription Eyewear

Global Market Size: $5B. The 4.3% global CAGR through 2028 corresponds with a rise in elderly populations and life expectancy. According to the Vision Council of America, 76.2% of Americans already used some kind of vision correction in 2015. A US Census Report further estimates that the population older than 65 will jump from 8.5% (617 million) worldwide in 2015 to 17% by 2050 (1.6 billion), bolstering the global demand for prescription eyewear. Some major players include the Luxottica Group, Carl Zeiss, Seiko Optical Products, and Hoya Vision.

Contact Lenses

Global Market Size: $11.9B. With a 5.6% projected global CAGR through 2025, medical complications that occur with age such as myopia and presbyopia paired with rising populations drive much of this growth. Some major players include Essilor-Luxottica, Alcon Vision, CooperVision, Bausch + Lomb, and ZEISS International.

Medical Cataract Surgeries

Global Market SizeL $5.4B. With a projected 5.2% CAGR through 2025, this sector is expecting to reach $9.8B in only five years. Again, much of this growth is propelled by the increasing elderly population. Some major players include Alcon Vision, Hoya Vision, Carl Zeiss, and Johnson & Johnson.

The Competition

Optics companies can either perform R&D in-house or contract with third-parties such as Hue.Ai.

In-House

Large competitors spend hundreds of millions annually on research and development. They have two primary drawbacks. First, these R&D budgets are not spent purely on colorants. Since these larger companies also manufacture and sell the lenses, portions of their R&D budget are pulled away to improve these other facets of the company. For instance, Essilor’s R&D teams recently researched bringing virtual reality into their stores, so customers can virtually try on different lenses. While useful to Essilor, such spending does not compete with Hue.Ai. Second, without Hue.Ai’s AI engine, these larger companies are left with the brute force research methods that they have traditionally used, which costs time and money. However, their large budgets do put them in competition with Hue.Ai: Essilor Luxottica spent over 260 million Euros in the first semester of 2019. Carl Zeiss spent 640 million Euros on R&D in 2018. Alcon invests $1 billion R&D each year, second only to US government sponsored research.

3rd Party

Smaller, third-party firms such as Hue.Ai do exist. They usually focus on researching subfields in the industry and partner with the larger companies. These firms are more direct competitors to Hue.Ai than the in-house R&D departments of global eyewear companies since they occupy the same niche. There have been trends towards AI in the 3rd party firms; however, it is used to design custom lenses for users rather than developing broadly applicable colorants or dyes that can be licensed to larger companies. In other words, while Hue.Ai’s AI does the work of a research team, it’s competitors’ AI does the work of an optician– collecting data on the patient and delivering a well-fitting lens.

Some 3rd party firms include: Shamir Autograph Intelligence uses patient data and AI to prescribe lenses for presbyopia. R&D Optical Lab focuses on creating custom lenses rather than broad R&D. Phantom Research Laboratories sells a lens dye line of vanilla pigments that don’t target medical conditions like Hue.Ai’s products. EnChroma sells lenses to combat color-blindness, but a 2018 study by the University of Granada refutes EnChroma’s claims. It found that EnChroma does not help with recognition or arrangement, the two tests used in color-blindness. Tatvum Research is a third-party R&D firm similar to Hue.Ai, but they do not advertise an AI process that supplements their own R&D.

In summary, there’s only a handful of companies even similar to Hue.Ai, and no other company uses AI to design colorants. This gives Hue.Ai a massive advantage in speed and cost-effectiveness compared to its competitors’ sluggish and spontaneous traditional R&D process.

The Team

CEO Justin Fong and CTO Keenan Valentine came up with the idea for Hue.Ai after thinking about what types of industries AI applications might be currently ignored. Their goal was to bring this type of technology to an otherwise untouched field and see how truly disruptive they could be. When the pair noticed that a lot of their friends struggled with color blindness, their great idea became an even better mission. Hue.Ai was born.

Justin says, “We both noticed color blind colleagues at work had trouble making powerpoint presentations and interpreting certain charts. We got started testing lens technologies at the flower section of Lowe’s!”

Photo provided by CEO Justin Fong testing out their first colorblind correcting prototypes at Lowe’s

Justin graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a focus on finance and economics and worked in at Charles River Associates for several years, where he and Keenan first met and “became fast friends,” Justin says. “He and I kept in close contact after working for CRA and did several side projects.”

With a Cornell PhD, Keenan worked at CRA for several years before graduating from Google’s Advanced Solutions Lab 2017. Keenan then developed and commercialized Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning technologies for AES and led a team to deploy AI that demonstrated significant improvements to core operations until the cofounders teamed up to start Hue.Ai.

Hue.Ai’s core team and advisory board is stacked with Ivy League PhDs from Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton, as well as optometrists and industry experts just to name a few.

“We received a lot of interest from the optical industry. Eventually it became too much work to do our day jobs and startup at the same time. So we took the plunge and quit our jobs, and began working out of a garage …” and the rest is history in the making.

One thing’s for sure, this is a company you’ll want to keep your eye on.

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