Tracing the DNA  of Orlando's LensAR

Nick Curtis, CEO, of Orlando-based LensAR Inc., talks laser-based cataract surgery technology.

After a shakeout in recent years, Central Florida's laser eye-surgery technology industry – once bustling with many companies – has only a few left today. But one of them, LensAR Inc., is gaining prominence on a global scale.

Orlando-based LensAR captured the biggest venture capital deal in Florida in the third quarter - $17 million from the Hamilton Lane investment firm. The company, which has now secured $100 million in venture financing since 2005, specializes in 3D-imaging-aided cataract-removal laser surgery machines.

LensAR says it rolled out its system only a year ago, but already has nearly 50 systems in 13 countries. Its annual revenues are approaching $20 million.

And though it may seem like a newcomer, LensAR's executive DNA goes back more than two decades in Central Florida.

LensAR was the brainchild of Randy W. Frey, a laser eye-surgery entrepreneur and former engineer with Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Orlando missiles unit. Frey originally founded it as LaserSoft Vision Inc. in 2004; the name was changed to LensAR in 2007 as new investors came aboard.

Frey remained president of LensAR until leaving the post nearly two years ago. He remains on the board of directors.

 

Started in 1980s

Frey entered the laser eye-surgery industry in the late 1980s when he founded Autonomous Technologies Inc., which specialized in laser vision-correction systems. It went public in 1996 and was acquired in 1999 by a Boston-area company, Summit Technologies Inc. A year later, Summit-Autonomous was scooped up in a $1 billion deal by Alcon Laboratories Inc., a Swiss company with U.S. headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

Alcon's Orlando unit was hit hard during the recession and began to cut its work force in 2007. Alcon officials also cited regulatory problems with one of its main products, an advanced laser used in popular LASIK surgery. Regulators recalled that system because of a high complication rate in patients.

Sales of the system slumped, more workers were laid off. By the end of 2007, Alcon had closed its unit in the Central Florida Research Park. Some of the former Autonomous employees were eventually hired by LensAR, said Alex Fong, a laser industry executive and president of the Florida Photonics Cluster, a locally based industry group.

"There are still some companies left in addition to LensAR," he said. "But the laser eye-surgery business has been consolidated quite a bit, with various companies buying each other."

Tech Notes

•Garmor Inc., a UCF high-tech spinout, has established a new factory near Orlando International Airport. The 10,000-square-foot facility opened earlier this month. Garmor is a UCF business-incubator start-up that also received $300,000 from UCF's seed-capital fund. It was started by UCF chemist Richard Blair and graduate student David Restrepo, who developed a materials-science process to more efficiently produce graphene. That is a lightweight, high-strength element used in the plastic structures of cars and boats and in other commercial applications.

•IR-radiance Glass Inc., another UCF spinout, recently received a $1 million infusion of capital from a private investor. The funds will be used to expand its manufacturing activity, which is part of the UCF Business Incubation Program's Photonics Incubator. IR-radiance produces high-tech glass components made of chalcogenide, which can be precisely customized for various infrared systems used in defense, medicine, environmental science, communications and entertainment.

LightPath Technologies, Inc., an Orlando optics maker, recently expanded its factory line by 45 percent to meet increased demand in China for certain products.