Some 10 million people suffer from corneal blindness. It's relatively rare in the U.S., and if you have it, you're likely to have a corneal transplant and your vision will be restored. But in the developing world, where most corneal blindness occurs, it's a different matter.
Now, a Seattle-based nonprofit is applying lessons learned in the coffee business in its efforts to bring sight to as many people as it can.
Tucked away in a downtown Seattle office building is one of the largest eye banks in the world. It's run by an organization called SightLife. It finds organ donors, collects the corneas from the newly deceased and prepares the tissue for surgery.
Tim Schottman, the senior vice president for global programs at SightLife, leads us into the lab, where technicians are peering into microscopes. He picks up a plastic cup containing a human cornea and points to the tissue that's being evaluated.
"It was recovered probably in the last 24 hours," he says. "And people in our lab right now are making an evaluation to determine whether it's appropriate for transplantation."
Schottman is a relative newcomer to the world of eye banks. Until 2008, he worked for Starbucks, where he learned a lot about taking an idea, scaling it up and making it work in a lot of countries and cultures. His background would prove invaluable to SightLife.
Opening 900 Eye Banks
The Seattle-based nonprofit was already sending excess corneal tissue to eye banks abroad. But it wasn't making a dent in the global problem of corneal blindness. SightLife President Monty Montoya wanted to change that.
What if, he wondered, his organization could help create 900 eye banks around the world to meet the local demand? Just about everyone thought his idea was crazy — except Schottman.
"[He] looked at it and said, 'Ah, only 900 — that's not that hard,'" Montoya says.
Schottman had been part of the global strategy team at Starbucks. "There were times we were putting plans together to open five, six, seven stores in a day," he says. "So to me, 900 over a 10- to 20-year time period seemed very modest in terms of its ambition."
Making a reference to a well-known proverb, Montoya says they didn't want to just give the eye banks fish — they wanted to teach them to fish. That is, he says, "Really switching from a, 'Give them a cornea here,' to a capacity-building strategy that would create organizations that would meet the local, regional and national demand of countries like India in a way that we could never do."
The eye bank at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in the city of Hyderabad, India, is one of SightLife's most successful partnerships. A few years ago, its surgeons were doing about 500 transplants a year; now it's triple that and will likely grow to about 2,500 next year.
The blind used to have to wait sometimes up to a year to get a transplant. Now they don't, says lead corneal surgeon Prashant Garg.
"I have more confidence in the cornea that are coming from eye banks," he says. "I am very sure about the quality of those tissues."
Eye Bank In A Box
As SightLife sees it, the biggest stumbling block in addressing corneal blindness has not been lack of surgeons or facilities, but rather a lack of tissue. So SightLife is helping to train counselors on how to get more tissue donations. Those efforts are already paying off.
The Seattle nonprofit is also helping to identify and train local leaders to run the eye banks. And just as a coffee giant might do with a new store owner, SightLife gives its partners a lot of nitty-gritty operational help. Schottman calls it an "eye bank in a box."
"Standard operating procedures, IT systems, job descriptions, facilities layouts, equipment specifications, all those details — you're helping the organization put all those things in place," he says.
Along with its eye bank in a box, SightLife gives its partners substantial early stage funding and is showing them how to become financially self-sustaining. What does it get in return? Schottman says the payback is huge.
"We talk a lot about return on investment, but not in terms of financial return but in terms of social return," he says. "This is how many people will have their sight restored."
The organization's goal is to help hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people around the world in the next two decades or so.