J. Kevin White's big idea came while on the job.
In 2005, White was the director of humanitarian assistance for the Department of Defense for Africa and Eastern Europe. His first deployment was to Morocco, where he remembers watching military personnel distribute donated eyeglasses to the needy. It didn't go well.
People selected eyeglasses based on the frames that they liked, not the glasses they needed. The remainder of donated glasses, about 90 percent according to White, were simply discarded. White knew there had to be a better way. He started a non-profit, Global Vision 2020 to tackle the problem.
It won a $1 million award during WeWork's Creator Awards Global Finals in New York.
The co-working company awarded over $4 million to eight promising startups and non-profits at the inaugural event, where winners of preliminary regional competitions pitched their big ideas to judges for a shot at the $1 million grand prize.
WeWork added an additional $1 million prize, so that both a non-profit and for-profit enterprise could win. Re:3D, a Texas-based 3-D printing company won the for-profit prize.
"If you let intention and impact lead you, the rest will follow," said event co-host Adi Neumann, a former Israeli supermodel and sister of WeWork co-founder, Adam Neumann. WeWork is said to be worth over $20 billion.
The global competition is part of WeWork's effort to promote promising startups, while also positioning the company's brand as not only an office space firm, but one that fosters innovative ideas and entrepreneurs.
But WeWork's involvement isn't entirely altruistic. While non-profits received cash grants, the money awarded to for-profits are in exchange for equity or an ownership stake. Entrants aren't required to be members of a WeWork co-working space, but if they win, they're expected to sign on for at least a year.
"I'm just a Marine who saw a problem, had an idea, and said someone needs to do something about this and when no one did, I said Okay, I'll give it a try,'" White said.
White founded Global Vision 2020 in 2009. After experimenting with ad-specs, a type of fluid-filled, self-adjusting eyeglass, White invented the USee refractometer, a tool that uses sliding lens strips over each eye to quickly diagnose vision and eyesight. Corresponding corrective lenses are selected and then easily snapped into frames chosen by the patient.
Aid workers in seven countries including China, Ghana, Mozambique and the Philippines have distributed approximately 15 kits, each containing the USee, 252 frames, lenses and eye charts, enabling them to quickly diagnose patients in the field and efficiently distribute glasses.
Another finalist, Tel Aviv startup EyeFree Assisting wearable, an eye-tracking device that gives patients with locked-in syndrome the ability to communicate.
Locked-in syndrome is a neurological disorder that results in the paralysis of all voluntary muscles, save for those that control eye movement. Patients have normal cognitive ability, but are unable to move or communicate verbally.
The EyeControl is unique from similar products in that it doesn't rely on a large screen or monitor for interactions.
Funding for the future
"Israel is a very competitive surrounding of technology and new startups every day," said Or Retzkin, CEO of EyeControl, "Winning on this category, in front of so many people... it was a great PR for the company."
Each finalist made it to the global finals after winning at preliminary competitions where they were awarded grants ranging from $36,000 to $360,000.
The range and diversity of all competitors made clear that the need for funding was a constant.
Most startups are in the early stages, but others are more established organizations, like Washington, D.C.-based ByteBack, which provides tech career training to unemployed, low-income adults. ByteBack won $360,000 at the finals.
Elizabeth Lindsey, executive director of ByteBack, said that funding intended for a company's long-term growth was the hardest to find.
"This funding has really given us this opportunity to think more strategically and to dream bigger," Lindsey said.