Eyebot wants to make vision care more accessible through AI-powered kiosks. It just nabbed $6M to expand

Startup Eyebot aims to bring 21st-century innovation to vision care to make eye exams more accessible to people.

The company, founded in March 2021, develops kiosks, what the company called terminals, that perform automated, self-serve vision tests in as quickly as 90 seconds and can immediately provide prescriptions for corrective eyewear.

Matthias Hofmann, Ph.D., Eyebot founder and CEO, says it's the first "push-button vision testing technology." The technology delivers accurate eye prescriptions directly at the point-of-sale, eliminating the traditional barriers within the corrective eyewear industry and paving the way for an enhanced retail experience, he noted.

Eyebot terminal used for automated eye exams
Eyebot's automated eye exam terminal (Eyebot)

Eyebot secured $6 million in a seed funding round led by AlleyCorp and Ubiquity Ventures with participation from Humba Ventures, Susa Ventures, Village Global, Baukunst, Ravelin and Spacecadet.

Eyebot will use the funding to boost product development, grow its team and accelerate its expansion initiatives, Hofmann said.

The company plans for a full launch in October with optical retail partners and will scale in 2025, he noted. "We did a couple of soft launches that had a really good reception," he said.

The company says it has completed clinical studies involving hundreds of patients and validated its self-serve modality in several U.S. cities. 

By integrating Eyebot within retail spaces, vision care becomes more accessible, allowing customers to learn about the quality of their vision, receive prescriptions, and purchase eyewear in just one visit, according to the company.

The freestanding, user-friendly machine is capable of performing hundreds of vision tests per day, offering a more efficient, accessible way to provide eye exams, according to the company. Consumers can purchase a prescription for $30 and can then get a consultation with a clinician to review the data. The company says it has built out a tele-doctor network of providers. 

The ophthalmology workforce already is understaffed. Since the 1990s, the number of ophthalmologists practicing in the U.S. has been trending downwards, while the demand for eyecare is simultaneously increasing due to the country’s aging population. A workforce study published in December projected a 12% decline in full-time equivalent ophthalmologists by 2035 while demand is projected to increase by 24%.

A study from the Baylor College of Medicine found that more than 25% of U.S. counties did not have a single practicing eye care provider. There were fewer than seven optometrists and ophthalmologists to care for every 10,000 Medicare beneficiaries in counties with the median number of providers and on average only one of these providers was an ophthalmologist, the study found. These shortages may limit access to basic eye care and reduce adherence to national screening guidelines, researchers noted.

Eyebot aims to bridge these gaps with its self-serve vision testing terminals.

"The great thing about this model is that the upfront consultation that happens right at the kiosk is essentially free because it's subsidized by the retail brand. That allows us to put these self-serve kiosks all over the country, including in health deserts and locations where there's simply no vision care available in any direction for some consumers for one or two hours," Hofmann said.

The Eyebot terminals are built on a suite of different technologies, he said.

"Those technologies include a touch-free, contactless refraction. That means you as a user stand in front of it and the technology automatically aims and searches for the eyes and then uses infrared light measurements," he said.

The technology can detect refractive errors, including nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism to determine if a user needs glasses or contact lenses.

"The technology can also see over 20 different other indications and diseases at this point, which includes cataracts, we can classify cataracts, we can see corneal scars, keratoconus, miosis, Graves disease, amblyopia and strabismus. We can do a big portion of the anterior vision exam," Hofmann said.

"It requires very deep R&D on ophthalmic technology because we had to build everything new from scratch. This interface we've developed does not exist, it's never been built before. Our vision testing technology is proprietary and built from the ground up," he said.

"The in-person vision test is a major obstacle for consumers and retailers in the corrective eyewear market," said Abe Murray, general partner at AlleyCorp, in a statement. "Eyebot's implementation of automation and cutting-edge technology has the potential to completely transform the way leading eyewear brands perform vision tests and deliver prescriptions. Eyebot is bringing vision care to underserved communities and health deserts across the world at the touch of a button."

Eyebot attracted interest from investors who identified the need to innovate in vision care. The startup also benefits from strong investor appetite in AI-based companies, Hofmann noted.

"There's a very big interest currently in the state of AI and there's a big AI component to what Eyebot is doing. The complexity is on the hardware side with the measurements, we do all the measurements automatically, and there's a lot of AI that enables that full automation," he said.

Hofmann's interest in health technology started 10 years ago when he was a postdoc at Harvard Medical School. He joined a startup called EyeNetra which developed smartphone-based vision exams.

“It was the first company to propose the idea of well, why don't individuals just do the vision test with technology to then get a prescription and buy glasses instead of having to go to the in-person exam. It was clear that this entire industry is a bit outdated compared to other industries. That hasn’t been a massive improvement in the way people can access glasses and their vision care. It's been the same for the past 100 years. Then, all the sudden, everybody had smartphones in their hands. I found it very interesting around this idea of getting people access to vision care through technology they already have,” he said.

The company built eye diagnostic devices and gained FDA approval as a Class 1 device, Hofmann noted, but struggled to develop the right user interface.

“What we couldn't see at the time is that most people, no matter how valuable it is, can wrap their heads around a new or complicated test that you have to do on a non-traditional user interface where you have to like set up the phone a certain way and you have to follow instructions. As soon as you do that, you lose 95% of the population,” he said. “We learned that the hard way. We built something that worked on a technical level, but the user experience and the journey just didn't work.”

He added, “But it stuck with me because it was very clear that we're on to something and there is a very large need for doctors. There are not enough doctors, about 6,000 doctors unfilled positions in the United States in retail for optometrists. One in 10 Americans walks around with blurry vision so the problem is there. The big conclusion is that smartphones are not the solution.”

Hofmann then worked at other companies and gained experience scaling up hardware and building startups. He decided to tackle vision care from a different angle. “The big conclusion was that we have to build a new interface that people can use and anyone can use; something that is so simple that it just happens automatically. You just need to push a button and the rest happens automatically.”

In five years, Hofmann would like to see Eyebot's terminals expanded to over 5,000 locations across the country. "Our target eventually is to reach 97% of the population within within 10 minutes," he said.

He sees the potential to expand Eyebot's self-serve technology outside the U.S. market as well.

"We have all these developing nations that also have a doctor shortage. This is a universal problem; the population is growing and the expertise required, the trained eye care providers, are not growing with the population. That gap keeps increasing. We want to provide patient care equally to all, regardless of income or socioeconomic background, so we're lowering the barrier to entry so low that it's just a great equalizer for everyone," he said.

There are a number of companies using AI-based diagnostics for eye exams. Three companies currently offer FDA-approved AI eye exams for diabetic retinopathy — Digital Diagnostics, Eyenuk and Israeli software company AEYE Health.

Another company, Visibly, developed an eye test that requires only a smartphone and a computer and can be performed from the comfort of a user’s own home, as Fierce Medtech reported.

Medical software company Heru is using AI and virtual reality to develop vision tests. Using commercially available headsets, the company is developing an artificial-intelligence-powered diagnostic to help examine a person for any losses in their visual field, such as from glaucoma or following a stroke, or for double vision and other eye conditions, according to Fierce Medtech.

The concept of self-serve, automated healthcare leveraging AI is starting to gain some traction.

In November, primary care player Forward unveiled self-serve CarePods that use artificial intelligence to screen and diagnose health conditions. The new CarePods, which look like kiosks, are being deployed in malls, gyms, and offices starting in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Forward plans to more than double its footprint in 2024, the company said.

The AI-based CarePods are designed like kiosks that automate medical check-ups. The CarePods are the next step in the company's vision to use technology to scale healthcare services to large populations, essentially, everybody, Adrian Aoun, Forward's outspoken founder and CEO, told Fierce Healthcare.