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Dr. Ron Blum
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The astounding, $1,000 emPower lenses use transparent electrodes to react to the eyes’ immediate visual need.
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Inside a sterile cleanroom, workers at Roanoke County’s PixelOptics help design and build cutting-edge eyeglasses.
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A technician prepares a lens for grinding at PixelOptics.
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Dr. Ron Blum
Dr. Ron Blum, with patents, on (non) retirement: “I have tremendous energy, and there will be other things.”
Ron Blum is painstakingly drawing the innards of his new emPower electronic spectacles on a white dry-erase board. He insists that a visiting journalist try on a pair and discover that with the touch of a finger the lenses adjust instantly to focus in on objects near or far away.
“I’ve been working on this for 12 years. It hasn’t been a walk in the park,” says Blum, a soft-spoken, slightly built man of science who wears neither a white smock on his person nor ego on his sleeve.
Yet Blum is an American success story in the spirit of Thomas Edison or George Washington Carver, if on a smaller scale. But he’s of that same from-the-ground-up genre of infinitely curious innovators who continually confront mysteries you might think only a giant corporation or government agency could solve.
To understand and appreciate Blum and the meaning of his four decades as a Roanoke-based researcher, inventor and entrepreneur requires a closer look than he usually stands still for. Although he applies his intellect in almost perpetual motion, Blum’s life and times are known to the public mainly as a series of snapshots that seem barely connected: From working in an everyday optometry practice quizzing patients on tiny lines of letters and numbers, to inventing Tie-Tites – a now-defunct device that keeps shoelaces snug – to helping develop a surgically implanted electronic lens which might become an ophthalmic game changer in the league with LASIK surgery.
This summer has marked the retail launch of emPower, the $1,000-a-pair glasses introduced by PixelOptics Inc., a 60-employee company located in a brick-faced office park just off Peters Creek Road in North Roanoke County, in the same building where his Egg Factory has been spawning ideas and business since 1999.
Blum is chairman and chief executive officer of PixelOptics, although the company is majority-owned by several investors as far away as Japan.
Blum’s career is a now-and-then series of inspirational events linked by his genius, the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital he has gradually coaxed and the iconic names on a long and diverse list of partners and patrons he has attracted. Eclectic in the extreme, they include shoe giant Converse, the Pentagon, Japan’s Panasonic and New Jersey-based health-care biggie Johnson & Johnson.
Still, since arriving in Roanoke in 1972 to accept his first job as an optometrist, Blum hasn’t achieved the recognition locally that he enjoys in some major research and development laboratories around the world. One reason is that when his inventions have come to market, they’ve been manufactured elsewhere. Blum’s associates and investors in various companies estimate that while he has probably helped create about 300 jobs locally, his products have supported a workforce spread across the U.S. and some overseas locales totaling about 5,800.
Most of those jobs exist today, including dozens at the Southwest Virginia optometry chain he founded in 1977 that operates today as Newman, Blackstock and Associates. He exited that business in 1991 to concentrate on forming other companies and do research.
If all the business entities that Blum has spawned were in Roanoke, Blum might today be the area’s second largest private employer, collectively, behind only Carilion.
Jack Loeb, a retired Roanoke home builder who has invested in Blum’s ideas since the ‘70s and provided basement tinkering space, calls Blum “The Mad Scientist.”
For example, in 1991, Blum rented space in a tanning salon to conduct a lens experiment. The research effort stunned long-time Blum associate Amitava Gupta, who holds a PhD in chemical physics from CalTech.
“He had these little glass bowls with resin in them and he would leave them outside to see if the sun cured the material to form lenses,” says Gupta. “But clouds and rain interfered. So he took the bowls to a tanning salon, rented a bed and spread them out. Turns out that it worked, and the tanning place was a great laboratory.”
Blum inspires enduring affection and faith in such followers, beginning with the first invention brought to market. It was not for the eyes, but for kids’ feet – their shoes to be exact. In 1982, Blum noticed that his then-small children’s shoelaces tended to become untied, so he developed fasteners he called Tie-Tites.
Blum, whose formal education was capped at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, had no formal classroom preparation in engineering to prime him for such an invention. Nor does he possess a higher academic background in chemistry or physics to ready him for making breakthrough discoveries in vision care.
Nevertheless, Tie-Tites proved to be a cure for loose shoelaces. “We sold perhaps a hundred thousand of them. They worked like a charm. We did a transaction with a manufacturer and a major promotion with Converse shoes across the U.S,” recalls Blum.
But as so often happens with progress, a better mousetrap came along. “Within a year after launching Tie-Tites, Velcro came out,” says Blum. “Bottom line we sold many Tie-Tites but never really made any money before Velcro took the luster off our market.”
Loeb says he invested $10,000 or so in Tie-Tites, which failed to produced a return. But Blum points out that Loeb surely made money on some of the products developed from the inventor’s later research. What’s more, Loeb says he profited from being hired to build Blum’s house in Hunting Hills. Loeb is still invested in The Egg Factory, and is a director of the company.
He expresses a conviction common among Blum associates: “I believe in Ron.”
So do many professional investors, such as Gary Kurtzman, managing director of Safeguard Scientifics, a venture capital firm near Philadelphia. He advanced $45 million to PixelOptics this year toward the introduction of emPower. He says Blum appeared at a meeting to request Safeguard’s investment without an entourage.
“Ron doesn’t need a PhD or financial advisor to explain his ideas,” says Kurtzman. “He’s an inventor of things that solve practical problems and he understands the eyeglasses industry.”
To be sure, there have been some significant paydays for Blum and his investors. In 1995, he took, Innotech, a maker of eyeglasses, public in a $30 million stock offering on the Nasdaq exchange. In 1996, Johnson & Johnson swooped in to acquire Innotech, which still hadn’t become profitable, for $124 million.
Those transactions made Blum and some of his believers wealthy. He remained a Johnson & Johnson employee until 1999, and helped develop a now-successful line of progressive addition lenses.
They’re now produced under the brand name Definity, made by Essilor International, which acquired the technology from Johnson & Johnson in 2005. But Definity didn’t yield a major benefit that Blum hoped for: jobs in Roanoke. Essilor didn’t follow through on plans made public by Johnson & Johnson to build a 600-worker plant in Roanoke. Instead, Essilor built in Dallas.
Blum expresses keen disappointment: “Definity was invented, developed and patented in Roanoke. Those lenses could have been made in Roanoke instead of Dallas.”
Yet Blum understands the realities of corporate ownership’s quest for manufacturing’s lowest cost locations in areas where a sizable and trained workforces already exist. Thus he accepts the insistence of Shikoku Electronics, a unit of Panasonic, that PixelOptics’ emPower glasses will be made in Japan.
How many manufacturing jobs emPower will lead to in Japan is unclear, depending on consumer demand. Meanwhile, Blum says, Roanoke gets a consolation prize. He expects PixelOptics employment here to about double to 110 or so by the end of 2011 as the company adds jobs in research and development, marketing, sales and shipping.
Plans are to sell emPower through Mid-Atlantic region optometry shops, expanding gradually as retailers can be trained to show consumers how to use them. The complexity of the emPower, let alone their $1,000 pricetag, makes acceptance by the mass market uncertain.
“This isn’t just ‘slam them on your face and go,’” says Mike Packard, a PixelOptics board member who formerly worked in technology development at the giant optometry chain LensCrafters. For one thing, optometrists’ buy-in is dicey. He says they’ll be required to pony up a fee – he declined to disclose the amount – to acquire emPower sales rights and then undergo a day-and-a-half of training on the auto-focus glasses.
The emPower is designed to allow wearers to alter their prescriptions to focus on objects near or distant. Two transparent electrodes are built into the lenses with a thin layer of liquid crystal between them. There are no moving parts, and the glasses don’t look any different than conventional models.
A New York Times article last February gushed about emPower: “To call up reading power in the new glasses, users touch the side of the frame,. “Turn it off to hit a golf ball; turn it on to read the scorecard.”
Yet Blum is already looking beyond emPower to new frontiers in vision improvement.
Another company started by The Egg Factory, Elenza Inc., located in the same office park, is off and running to produce a tiny electronic package that can be surgically implanted in the eye to adjust sight with technology similar to the emPower lenses. One of Blum’s protégés, Amitava Gupta, is Elenza’s chief technical officer.
The company recently received a $24 million infusion of venture capital funding. Gupta says Elenza’s product, patented as the Electro-active AutoFocal Intraocular Lens, is expected to complete testing and receive regulatory approvals in Europe in about three years, much faster than U.S. authorities normally permit.
Thus it initially will be sold overseas only and likely manufactured in India. Again, a major innovation from Blum and colleagues won’t mean more jobs here.
“It’s not Roanoke’s fault,” says Gupta, who spends much of his time traveling internationally on behalf of Elenza. “Ron and his team, we would like nothing better than to manufacture in Roanoke. It’s where we live.”
And Blum seems to live mostly for work, which he says requires the understanding of his wife, Kay. Married in 1970, they have two children and four grandchildren.
“She has allowed me to pursue my passion of inventing and growing young companies,” he says. “This has taken a tremendous amount of time away from my family. However I balance this by not playing golf or spending time with the guys. I’m 100 percent at work or 100 percent at home and nothing in between.”
Now 64, Blum doesn’t see himself retiring. Instead, he’s honed on 11 products in the works that are more years away from production than Elenza’s implants, including some eyedrops he’s excited about but won’t discuss. Any one of those, he says, could lead to the breakthrough that finally puts Roanoke on the global economy’s map as more than a speck with dotted lines that lead far and wide.
An Invention Blum Didn’t Pull Off
Long-time Ron Blum buddy and investor Jack Loeb likes to tell the story of the invention he suggested to the fertile and imaginative mind of Blum.
It was, Loeb admits, a product he personally yearned for: hard liquor in powdered form.
“So you could mix up a cocktail while camping, hiking or anywhere,” says Loeb, a retired Roanoke developer.
Blum considered his friend’s request carefully, but ultimately decided that creating powdered liquor wouldn’t live up to the serious ideals he’d set for a company established to incubate early-stage research concepts.
The Egg Factory, according to Blum, “is set up to work on global needs that benefit society and are of a certain large scale and scope.
“And we could not figure out how powdered liquor was going to benefit society.”
Blum says Loeb took the rejection well: “Jack handled our turning down his idea with professionalism.”
Loeb, for his part, maintains he “was just being practical.”
Ron Blum Timeline
- 1946 Born in Kingsport, Tenn.
- 1965 Graduated from Dobyn’s Bennett High School in Kingsport.
- 1970 Married “my secret weapon, best friend, and life-long partner” (Kay).
- 1972 Graduated from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn.
- 1972 Moved to Roanoke and joined in optometry practice with Jack Rapoport O.D.
- 1977 Started his own independent practice of optometry in Roanoke.
- 1980 Miles Newman joined and Drs. Blum and Newman, Optometrists was formed; additional offices opened.
- 1983 Joe Blackstock, O.D. joined and Drs. Blum, Newman, Blackstock and Associates was formed and more offices opened.
- 1982 Invented Tie-Tites (A device for keeping shoe laces from coming untied).
- 1991 Started Innotech, Inc. and left Drs. Blum, Newman, Blackstock and Associates.
- 1995 Took Innotech public on the Nasdaq
- 1996 Sold Innotech to Johnson & Johnson (and became employed by J &J).
- 1997 Lead team that invented Definity no-line bifocals.
- 1999 Left Johnson & Johnson and Founded The Egg Factory.
- 1999 Invented electronic focusing lenses having no moving parts.
- 2005 Established PixelOptics, Inc.
- 2006 Received first significant funding to pursue final development of electronic eyeglasses.
- 2011 Expects to commercially launch electronic eyeglasses named emPower!