New ECE grad and partners win 2013 Duke Start-Up Challenge

Refresh Innovations, Inc.
compact contact lens cases

Founded: 2012

What it does: Designs and manufactures novel eye-care products that seamlessly integrate into users’ lives

Employees: 3

Duke ECE Founder: Matt Pleatman, BSE in ECE ’13

Matt Pleatman BSE’13 helped design first-of-its-kind Contact Lens Refresh Card

Contact-lens wearers worldwide will applaud the innovative product behind the 2013 Duke Start-Up Challenge winning team. The Contact Lens Refresh Card is a credit card-sized, all-in-one lens case and multipurpose-solution package. Its super-thin, patent-pending design makes the “card” disposable and easy to carry anywhere and everywhere.

Pratt School graduate Matt Pleatman ‘13, an ECE and Economics double major, is a materials specialist who has focused on electromagnetic fields and has a background in computer-aided and mechanical design. Pleatman met his partners Collin Walter (Trinity ’07) and Anish Patel through Duke Venture Forward (DVF), a student business organization co-founded by Walter.

Soon after Walter told DVF members that he was looking for partners to launch a start-up, he, Pleatman and Patel were a team.

Where did the idea for the Contact Lens Refresh Card come from?

After considering ideas contributed by each partner, we decided to pursue Collin’s idea—the Contact Lens Refresh Card—which he conceived in 2011 while taking a design course at Stanford University. [Walter and Patel are currently earning graduate degrees in business at Stanford.]

What problem does the Refresh Card solve?

It solves a problem that virtually every contact-lens wearer has experienced: needing to clean or store your lenses, but not having a lens case or solution with you. We recognized that the products necessary to properly care for contact lenses were designed for the home medicine cabinet, not for the on-the-go occasions when people often most need them.

Of the hundreds of lens wearers we interviewed, 86 percent reported having been in a situation where they needed to remove their lenses, but had no case to put them in.

Being in this predicament frequently leads people to misuse their lenses—by wearing them when they’re dirty or contaminated, wearing them too long (which can irritate eyes) and/or sleeping in them. Our team discovered research data asserting that 98 percent of lens wearers have done these things, which greatly increase eye-infection risk.

What made the Refresh Card the idea on which to launch your business?

The Refresh Card seamlessly solves a real pain point that contact-lens wearers deal with all the time. All of us at Refresh Innovations have worked on start-ups in the past, but we’ve never worked on a product that, as soon as you describe it to someone, he or she immediately understands it and wants to buy one. It’s one of those ideas where you think, “I can’t believe nobody has thought of this before.”

How did the team come up with the design?

In designing the Refresh Card, we were careful not to spend too much time in the office theorizing about what our customers wanted. Instead, we spoke with hundreds of actual lens wearers in order to better empathize with them and inform our design.

[Pleatman’s background in mechanical design comes from designing race cars on the Duke University Motorsports team—experience he says helped in working out the Refresh Card’s physical design.]

After months of work, interviews and more than 30 design iterations, Refresh Innovations, Inc., was launched in Stanford, Calif., in July 2012, with funding from our own pockets.

After entering the 2013 Duke Start-Up Challenge, our team made some changes based on issues raised by the judges, enabling us to take part in—and ultimately win—the competition, beating out more than 100 other start-ups.

What’s on the horizon for Refresh Innovations?

We plan to use the $50K Grand Prize winnings to conduct an alpha run of Refresh Cards. During this small-scale production run, the cards will be made from the same materials that will be used to make the production versions—not from rapid prototyping materials.

We’re currently accepting Refresh Card pre-orders and soliciting reseller inquiries and negotiating strategic distribution and manufacturing partnerships to bring the Refresh Card to market.

--by Jeni Baker