Vision Monday Columns: A Bit of Nostalgia
A BIT OF NOSTALGIA
IRVING J. ARONS
Vision Monday, March 1989
I recently saw a picture of Solon Braff, the founder of Calcon Labs, as he attended last Fall's International Society of Contact Lens Specialists biennial meeting (1988), and it brought back a flood of memories about my early days in consulting in the contact lens business.
Sol's Calcon Labs in Hollywood, CA was one of the first I toured along with the Soft Lenses operation in San Diego in 1976. That got me thinking about how I first got involved and of some of the entrepreneurs I have met along the way. The times certainly have changed. The contact lens industry has matured and few entrepreneurs remain in the business. Most companies today -- especially the larger ones -- are run by professional business people, most of whom have had little previous contact lens industry experience, as did their predecessors. But, ce est la vie, that’s the way it is, as we reach the 18th anniversary of the soft lens in the United States.
It all began for me when I joined Arthur D. Little in 1969. One of my first assignments was to try and find other uses besides contact lenses for HEMA, the polymer used in the first soft lenses. We had been retained by National Patent to find out what else could be done with this intriguing material that they had "discovered" in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s. We didn't find much of value, but I began to keep files on this fascinating material that turned from hard plastic to soft with the addition of a small amount of water.
In early 1972, Joe Nemeth of Nemeth Contact Lens Lab in Boston, associated with the noted Boston ophthalmologist, Dr. Perry Rosenthal, visited ADL to see if he could use our laser to "fenestrate" (put holes in) contact lenses to increase their oxygen permeability. As one of the young plastic chemists on the staff, I was asked to meet with Joe, and then later with his associate, Dr. Rosenthal. Perry told me all about this new soft contact lens that he was working with, and how he wanted us to develop a new material that he could use to make contact lenses. I guess our development proposal was too costly; he eventually took the idea to the Univ. of Lowell, outside of Boston, started Polymer Technology and developed the Boston Lens.
In May 1972, I got a call from the underwriters working with National Patent on a proposed public offering. That began my longtime relationship with Jerry Feldman and Martin Pollak, the founders of National Patent. They hired ADL to conduct a worldwide inquiry into the safety of the then just released Bausch & Lomb Soflens, since nearly all their revenues were from royalties received from B&L. As part of that assignment, our ADL team interviewed all of the original clinical investigators of the B&L Soflens and I attended the Senate Select Hearings on Soft Lenses in July, 1972. I had the privilege of meeting and sitting next to Jim Dodd, then President of B&L's Soft Lens Division, and listening to Neal Bailey's testimony on the safety of the soft lens. After the meeting, I shared a taxi back to the airport with Bob Spriggs, the president of Automated Optics. Bob told me he was going to have the next soft lens approved and he was right. He had licensed the Seiderman physiological polymer (PhP) material to Don Brucker of Continous Curve, who's Soft Lenses' Hydrocurve Lens was the next cosmetic lens to win FDA approval in 1974.
As a result of that first assignment in 1972, I wrote and ADL published one of the first market research reports on the soft lens industry in 1973, and as they say, my career in the contact lens industry was established. Along the way I have met and interviewed many of the original industry pioneers, most of whom were introduced to me by my mentor, Neal Bailey, the original editor of Contact Lens Forum and now Contact Lens Spectrum. I would attend the CLMA and Optifair meetings and walk the exhibit halls with Neal who would introduce me to everyone who was someone in the industry.
Some of the more colorful pioneers have included Don Brucker of Continous Curve, who told me he couldn't talk to me because his company was in SEC registration (for a public offering) and then proceeded to spend a couple of hours telling me all about his hard and soft lens businesses. I had a similar experience with Orrin Stine, president of Wesley-Jessen, who told me in about two hours how he never gave interviews. Others included Stanley Gordon, president of UCO Optics, and his stories of the early days of the hard lens business; Fred Danker of Danker Labs and his compression molding lab on Long Island; and Alan Isen of Griffin Labs, who had sold his lens material to Warner Lambert (and its American Optical Division), and spent four hours in one of our conference rooms lecturing to me about the benefits of his Softcon material.
And there was Don Korb. Don and Miguel Refojo of the Retina Institute founded Corneal Sciences in Boston, and developed the CSI lens. They eventually sold CSI to Syntex and it now resides with Pilkington's Barnes-Hind. Don had fit one of the secretaries at ADL with his ultrathin CSI extended wear lens and when he found out where she worked, insisted that she not tell me anything about the lens. Of course I eventually found out about it and Don later became a friend and provided much insight into extended wear.
Of course I have to include Jerry Feldman and Martin Pollak in this group of entrepreneurs. They above all others were responsible, first, for the soft lens industry in the U.S., and for getting me started in this career. (Incidentally, those of you who are nostalgia buffs may be interested in getting a copy of Jerry's article, "The Hard Story of the Soft Contact Lens", that appeared in last September's Chemtech (1988), a magazine published by the American Chemical Society. It tells all about his and Martin's involvement in the beginnings of the soft lens.)
Well, finally, what goes around, comes around. I recently noticed that B&L was going to reintroduce the silicone elastomer lens into the market. Sol Braff's Calcon Labs was for a time owned by Dow Corning, who first introduced the silicone lens, "the lens of the future" (and it may always be -- but that’s another story), in the mid 1970s, and who then sold its rights to B&L. Next time I'll tell a little of the history of the silicone lens.