Selling eye care with animation

Towson optometrist, his 3 sons create 3-D videos to show patients' options

October 11, 2007|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN REPORTER

Ten years ago, Dr. Steven Sopher was an optometrist with a vision.

Sopher thought that eye doctors could use computer animation to educate their patients and to help explain - and sell - options for treatment. He began talking about it with his three sons, one a recent college graduate doing technology consulting, the others twins studying at University of Maryland, College Park.

The family discussions were mostly conducted over breakfast at the Bel-Loc Diner in Carney or the Denny's near Sopher's Parkville office. They were trying to figure out how the idea could turn into a business.

"We developed an eyeball," Sopher recalled of their early animation efforts. "And I said, `Let's make it do something. Let's make it say something.'"

The company they created, Towson-based Eyemaginations, now has video packages in more than 8,500 practices around the world and 55 employees, including 10 based at an international sales office in Germany. Revenue this year is expected to approach $10 million.

Its animations - there are 226 in the Eyemaginations package - show, in three-dimensional views, how the eye works (a lens can be seen stretching, for example) and how the world looks to someone who has, say, nearsightedness or macular degeneration.

It has done custom productions for lens, drug and device companies Bausch & Lomb, CIBA Vision, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis and Zeiss. Its video system is installed at 14 of the 17 optometry schools in the United States.

Dr. Harry Quiqley, professor of ophthalmology and director of the glaucoma service at Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said he is beginning to work with Eyemaginations to develop teaching materials for use in training doctors. He is also conducting a research study to determine whether glaucoma patients who are shown videos are more likely to use the eyedrops they need than is a control group without an education program.

Eyemaginations has reached the point where it is looking for other medical fields in which it can repeat its success.

Sopher is chairman of the board. His sons have ownership shares, but are also employees. Michael, 33, is vice president of sales and training; Brad, 30, animation director; and Jordan, 30, director of integrated technology.

A key step from diner discussions to thriving business was taken in 2001, when they took some of the early videos to an optometric trade show in Atlanta.

"They put us way in the back, so far back that many booths were empty," Steven Sopher said.

"We did about half a dozen sales at the meeting," said Michael Sopher, who helped staff the booth. But other optometrists attending were intrigued and asked for more information. After the show, "we worked the phones, and we made 10 or 15 times the sales we made on the floor," he said, validation that Eyemaginations was a viable business.

The early years were touch-and-go for an enterprise that was financed out of Steven Sopher's pocket. "There were many times we had to have a successful trade show to keep the business going," he said.

But Eyemaginations kept having success at trade shows, and sales grew steadily. The Sophers decided that the company needed professional management.

"I knew I wasn't smart enough to run the business," said Sopher, who wanted to continue his optometric practice. "We had to find somebody to take us to the next level."

In another series of diner breakfasts, Jeffrey Peres, an investment banker, advised the family for more than a year. Peres, who was hired as chief operating officer in late 2004 and became president and chief executive officer the next year, hired a head of sales, a chief financial officer and other executives.

As the business was professionalizing, its customers were coming under increased financial pressure as vision coverage increased. About 74 percent of medium-size and large employers offered vision benefits last year, according to a survey by the Hay Group, benefits consultants.

"Insurers are lower-paying, so you need to see more patients," said Dr. Elizabeth McGinn, president of the Maryland Optometric Association, who practices in Towson and doesn't use Eyemaginations.

In addition to getting paid for examinations, many optometrists have in-office optical shops, an important source of additional revenue.

"We've been pretty dependent on it," McGinn said. "You couldn't make your overhead without it."

Eyemaginations pitched itself as a way for ophthamologists, optometrists and opticians to speed their explanations to patients, allowing them to see more patients in a day. And, the videos could show those patients higher-cost options in the optical shop and higher-cost treatments.

"Physicians needed a tool that would help them reduce chair time and showcase premium options to help increase revenue," Michael Sopher said.

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