San Francisco, California
Bespoke eyewear based on facial scans
Varady has required prescription eyewear since he was a kid. And like most people who wear glasses, the MIT engineer loathed shopping for them. But one day in 2012, he had to yield to the inevitable.
"I needed new glasses, so I went to the Marina District in San Francisco with my girlfriend -- now my wife -- to shop for them," Varady says. "Expense wasn't an issue for me, but the fit and appearance were. I have a big nose, and my ears are set pretty far back, so I have specific needs."
But after spending several hours shopping in high-end boutiques, Varady found nothing satisfactory. "Just the friction of shopping was exhausting," he says. "My girlfriend went home, and I kept looking -- but I ended up with nothing. It was incredibly frustrating. So as an engineer, I got to thinking about it from a technological perspective."
Varady ruminated on it a lot, actually. He spent a year browsing through hundreds of hours of YouTube videos on eyewear design and manufacturing. "Whenever my wife saw me on the computer, she joked that I was watching eyewear porn again," he laughs.
Then he traveled to Italy, long a mecca for high-end eyewear; he toured production facilities and retail outlets, and attended the world's largest eyewear trade fair.
"At that point, I was ready to jump," Varady says. "My background had been in implantable medical device manufacturing -- things such as cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators. I understood precision manufacturing and automation, and I knew I could apply both to eyewear, simultaneously raising the quality at the customized end of the sector while simultaneously lowering price."
So Varady secured some funding from a VC angel, and launched Topology. "What we do is create bespoke eyewear that fits each face precisely, to a degree really unknown in the industry," he says. "We're essentially selling $5,000 glasses for $500, and our waiting time is about two weeks compared to the three to four months typical for custom eyewear."
Topology accomplishes this sleight through proprietary software that scans the -- well, topology of each customer's face, yielding precise specifications for every component and touchpoint.
Customers can download an iPhone app to conduct the scan and send it directly to the company, or participate in a Topology-enabled Zoom session with an online partner optician for input and advice. The software scans the face to a deep and granular degree -- right down to surface variations on each side of the nose, says Varady.
"As a result, each nose pad is unique, configured to fit precisely," he explains. "That gives the eyewear a friction lock that has been impossible to achieve prior to our system. Before, nose pads just sort of sat on their edges -- they didn't conform to the surface of the skin, so they tended to slide around, like skis."
The same applies with the ears, notes Varady. Each ear stem varies in shape and angle according to the position and configuration of each ear. "So when you put the glasses down on a table, they often appear irregular, they may not lie flat," he says. "But then you put them on, and it's a perfect fit."
Such design makes Topology glasses nonpareils in comfort, says Varady. "People put on their first pair, and they invariably marvel at the lightness, the feeling that they're barely there," he says. "But they're not lighter -- the fit is so perfect, the weight so evenly distributed, that they just feel light."
Varady acknowledges that his entrepreneurial journey has been anything but easy. "We developed the software, and then I spent a long time in front of a CNC machine making the first pair, and I put them on. They were hideously ugly -- but they fit great, and I knew we were on our way. After that, it was a matter of meeting our incremental milestones. Make it cheaper, check. Create attractive designs, check. And all the while we were scaling the software."
Varady, in short, was making gradual progress -- but then lightning struck, and in a good way. Montreal-based New Look Vision Group, one of the largest eyewear retailers on the planet, invested heavily in Topology. "Their CEO is a visionary who shares our position that bespoke is the future for eyewear," says Varady. "They brought in a group of master opticians who provided critical data on lens measurement validation and helped us enormously with design, merchandising and marketing."
Varady believes Topology's proprietary Zoom-enabled ecommerce platform is as critical to the company's success as the eyewear. "It's an entirely new model for the optician/customer relationship," he says. "You can join one-on-one with your optician who can walk you through the scan, show you available styles -- anything you need to know. Before, buying glasses was complicated and a bother. This makes it easy. You don't have to go to a physical outlet, you can arrange appointments according to your schedule, and it obviates concerns about contact through the current pandemic and beyond. We believe this technology will crack the digital remote market for eyewear. It's going to change things on a global scale."
Varady is also proud that Topology manufactures eyewear in the United States. "More than that -- in San Francisco," he says. "We're disproving the notion that you have to outsource your labor. We're growing rapidly, and our customer base is intensely loyal. I have to admit there were a lot of people who thought we were crazy when we started this. But I believed passionately that it would take off. And it's deeply satisfying to see it happening."
Challenges: "Probably figuring out how to grow rapidly enough to meet demand and our market penetration goals," says Varady. "We're in about 400 retail stores now, and there are approximately 40,000 eyewear outlets in the U.S. alone. So we're in talks with some of the largest retailers in the country right now. We're also innovating with material and designs. Currently, we offer Italian plastic and stainless steel frames, but we're experimenting with titanium and precious metal plating for high-end designs. We're also constantly striving to reduce costs for lower entry points, so we're looking at options such as 3D printing."
Opportunities: Varady points to a massive global market: "More than half of all people need prescription lenses at some point in their lives. The world literally is our market. Our technology makes bespoke eyewear both easily accessible and affordable to a large number of people."
Needs: Capital. "We're scaling rapidly, and to fund that we're raising a round next year," says Varady. "You can grow slow and control your destiny -- but if you do that, you risk losing opportunity, and your competitors can catch up with you. On the plus side, we're so far ahead on the technology that we don't anticipate any serious competition for the foreseeable future."
Sourced with the help of SFMade, a member of