Opternative is gaining steam in the Chicago tech community. In February the Chicago-based startup, which claims to offer online refractive eye exams and lens prescriptions in just 10 minutes, received $1 million in seed funding from several Chicago venture capitalists. And this month Opternative, co-founded by Steven Lee and Aaron Dallek, was nominated for a Built in Chicago Moxie Award for Best New Startup.

With plans to launch this summer, Opternative says it will offer exams up to 75 percent less than a traditional eye doctor and will allow users to complete an exam from anywhere they choose.

So naturally, eye care professionals are pissed. In March, the American Optometric Association spoke out against online eye exams, cautioning that their claims should be “thoroughly scrutinized and evaluated.” And “anyone claiming to perform an eye exam without physically examining a patient is offering insufficient, ambiguous information and is contributing to a patient believing-incorrectly-that his or her eye health needs have been met.”

But even before the AOA took its stance, people in the eye care community unleashed on Opternative in the comments section of the company’s profile in TechCrunch.

Optometrist Bill OConnell:














Optometrist Lindsay Totten:


Optometry student Lindsay Baker:








It goes on, and on, and on, to the tune of 120+ comments, mostly from eye care professionals concerned that their $100,000 degree might be a complete waste of time. Their argument is that a computer can’t possibly be a replacement for a trained professional who has years of experience diagnosing glaucoma, cataracts, brain injuries, and other issues optometrists can spot when performing an eye exam. But by Opternative’s own admission on its website, the technology is not a substitute for an in-person eye exam.

“Our technology is intended to assist licensed eye care professionals in improving their delivery of patient eye care by increasing access to refractive eye exams and lowering costs,” the website says, adding, “Our technology does not include a comprehensive health exam. Opternative recommends that users go to see their nearest Optometrist or Ophthalmologist at their earliest convenience to get a full health exam…”

Here’s how it works, from TechCrunch’s interview with Lee and Dallek:

Dallek tells me Opternative system truly works because “everyone sees the world a little bit differently. Some people see it fuzzy. Some see it stretched. And about 25 percent of people see the world clearly. We’ve created these images that look different depending on what your prescription is.”


…the co-founders walked me through a demo. Once you calibrate the test to your screen size by measuring a credit card, it shows you a series of tests for astigmatism, color blindness, contrast, and distance reading.


Since people with astigmatism see the world stretched at certain angles, Opternative shows a fan of red and green lines. The stretching causes the red and green to bleed together into yellow that users can pick out to identify the angles where they have astigmatism. By asking for your shoe size and then telling you to take heel-to-toe steps away from your screen, Opternative can accurately measure your sight at different distances. It all feels clever and easy — almost fun.

The results are sent to an ophthalmologist who then emails you a prescription.

If successful, Opternative’s technology would be hugely disruptive to the eye care industry. And if they get the cost down, it could be a tool used in third-world countries to to test patients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see an eye doctor. So before we accuse Lee and Dallek of “showing the absolute lowest standards of patient care,” or that that they are a “disgrace to the profession,” lets give the technology a chance. We here at Chicago Inno are pro innovation (surprise!) and feel that Opternative deserves a chance  to show what it can do.

Its website says the company excepts to launch this summer, so we won’t have to wait too long to see the results.