Lessons Learned: Mission to Haiti

Marc Albanese is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Smart Vision Labs,  a digital health startup that will revolutionize the way you get your eyeglasses with its smartphone-based portable vision examination device. Smart Vision Labs was a participant in the the 2014 NYU Summer Launchpad program. 

Greg Van Kirk autorefracting with the SVOne

I found myself in a rural village in Haiti, packed inside a crowded van with 16 other volunteers – all exhausted from a full day of vision tests. My colleague, Greg Van Kirk, and I were physically tired but mentally invigorated. As part of the refraction team, Greg and I helped to refract nearly 250 community members over a six hour time-frame, and we were rewarded with the smile of a woman seeing clearly for the first time, possibly in her whole life. Refracting involves determining the prescription of somebody's eye - either automatically or manually. In the process, we successfully field tested our smartphone-based autorefractor (the SVOne), something we have been working towards over the last two years.

Working with VOSH

The trip to Haiti was organized by the Pennsylvania chapter of VOSH. VOSH, or Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, is an international organization whose purpose is to provide vision care worldwide for people who can neither afford nor obtain such care. The PA chapter of VOSH visits Haiti four times per year for a week. In August, the PA chapter visited the Cap Haitian region. This trip was led by Dr. David McPhillips, the president of VOSH International and a veteran of over 40 mission trips. 

Dr McPhillips

Smart Vision Labs

Smart Vision Labs was founded nearly two years ago by Yaopeng Zhou (Stern MBA 2015) and me (Stern MBA 2008). Yaopeng and I were good friends going back to graduate school at Boston University, where we developed an advanced microscope for assisting researchers in testing drugs for diabetic retinopathy. In the summer of 2012, Yaopeng shared with me his idea for a smartphone-based autorefractor (or, technically, an aberrometer), utilizing similar concepts from our graduate school days. We envisioned using such a device for solving the problem of refractive error related blindness in the developing world (roughly 250MM in the world) and for testing children (nearly 85% children age six and under and 70% of children age 16 and under have not had a thorough vision exam). Greg Van Kirk joined our team as the Director of Social Venture earlier this year. Greg is an Ashoka Globalizer and World Economic Forum "Social Entrepreneur of the Year". Greg has taught as adjunct faculty at the NYU Wagner Reynolds Program.


A Day in the Life of a VOSH Mission Trip

Each morning at 8AM, the team piled into a van in Cap Haitien to head out for the day’s vision tests. The trips took us all around Cap Haitien, including into the more rural parts of the surrounding countryside. On Wednesday, my first day of the trip, we visited an old church about 30 miles outside of Cap Haitian. When we arrived, there were already 100 people waiting for vision services. Within 20 minutes, the VOSH team – assisted by local assistants and translators – unpacked the van and setup several stations.

The Workflow

When a new patient entered the church, he or she filled out a form with their name, age, and any eye concerns. Many required assistance at this first step as they could not see or read. The first station in the workflow was visual acuity (both for distance and reading). Once completed, the patient walked over to refraction to obtain a prescription. Next up was eye health and, finally, a station where the patient could be fitted for glasses if necessary (though most patients walked away with at least a pair of sunglasses). Last, patients with severe eye issues or unique prescriptions were referred to a hospital.


Refraction Station

The refraction station consisted of three steps: autorefraction, manual refraction with a retinoscope, and the prescription write-up. The refraction station was led by Dr. Elizabeth Groetken, an optometrist based in Iowa. This was Dr. Groetken’s first mission trip, and she brought her daughter Kara along, a college student who wanted to share this experience with her mother.

The Refraction Team

During the testing, Greg, Kara, and I worked on autorefraction. We primarily used the Retinomax portable autorefractor, but also used the Smart Vision Labs SVOne with a subset of patients. Next the patients were funneled to Dr. Groetken who verified the results using a retinoscope. During our testing in Haiti, two moments really stood out for me:

Clear Vision for the First Time

During one of tests, we met a 50 year old woman who was complaining about her vision, and never being able to see far away. We tested her vision, determined her prescription, and then gave her glasses. Once she looked out through her glasses, she gave one of the biggest smiles I have seen in my life. The moment still gives me goose bumps when I think about it.

SVOne in action with the author, Marc Albanese

Success with Children

For adults, both devices were largely providing readings which were inline with the visual acuity testing. Then the children arrived. We saw a case in which the Retinomax posted OD -2.75 and OS -1.75 for sphere for a child with 20/20 visual acuity. In that particular case, the optometrist called us over and asked for a SVOne consult. We performed the refraction and measured a +0.25 sphere for both eyes. At that point on, the optometrist – who was thrilled at our results – insisted on sending all children directly to our device.

Marc Albanese and Greg Van Kirk


The mission trip to Haiti was a defining moment for both me and Smart Vision Labs. For me, the trip was personally rewarding because I was able to contribute to a team that helped hundreds of people receive vision care, some for the first time in their lives. For Smart Vision Labs, we were able to show that the SVOne could provide accurate and reliable results. We look forward to the next mission trip and working with more optometrists in the future. If you would like to hear more about our trip or learn more about the SVOne, please contact marc at