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Toronto native takes on online eye exam platform in Chicago

by Abby Sun
Aug 21, 2014



Managing a company that develops online eye exam, Steven Lee is one of thousands of young technology entrepreneurs the city of Chicago is attracting.

Since Steven Lee and his partner found the online eye exam startup Opternative, Inc. two years ago, Lee knew the revolutionary approach to ophthalmology would draw criticism from the public, especially fierce opposition from traditional office-based optometrists.  


Sporting a crew cut, neat shirt and blue jeans, Lee, 35, executive vice president of Opternative, sitting in a small conference room on 25th floor of River Plaza at 321 North Clark. The startup is backed by Chicago Venture Partners, L.P. a local venture capital firm, and Tribeca Venture Partners in New York City. After the company secured $1 million to develop technology for online eye exams with licensed prescriptions, the American Optometric Association warned the public about the potential dangers of skipping traditional eye exams.  


“Initially, we understood there would be opposition,” Lee said, compering Opternative with Uber Inc. and Airbnb Inc., which disrupt traditional taxi and vacation housing services. Lee foresaw the opposition and believed the concept would be accepted if people were open-minded.  


Lee is one of thousands young technology entrepreneurs the city of Chicago is encouraging and attracting. Last November, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new initiative aimed at doubling the city's technology economy by adding 40,000 jobs. He said in a press release, “We are seeing unprecedented growth in this vital sector, from established international corporations to start-ups designed by Chicagoans.” 


 Lee wants to build his career in Chicago. Given the fact of less crowded innovators, he sees more opportunities here than in Silicon Valley not only because of the less competitive market but also the strong support in the technology and medical fields from several world-renowned universities. 


In 2009, the initial idea of an online eye exam came to Lee, a Toronto native who graduated from Illinois College of Optometry, after he had been practicing optometry in a number of eye care clinics in Chicago.  


Lee quit his job as an optometrist to take on an adventure two years ago.“We believe that when possible, you must choose the world over your own self-interest,” said Aaron Dallek, the CEO and co-founder of Opternative, “Steve exemplified this value when he chose to give up his profession and work on Opternative full time.” 


The online model, which is designed to take five to 10 minutes for a medical-grade prescription, eliminates time consuming and inconvenient of the traditional office-based examinations. Lee, who hopes the technology will help people in Third World countries, where medical care is lacking, says the model can make eye care more accessible to individuals by help patients obtain prescriptions online. 


Lee treats both his employees and patients like family, according to Che Smith, an old patient of his two years ago, who later became a friend. Smith said Lee helped him at Lee’s apartment once he had an eye emergency at midnight. 


Lee has been practicing martial arts since he was 10, the principles of which he adapts to business. “Never give up,” he said. “I always prepare for the worst while working hard. Even [with] 20 people telling you no, you can still get one person telling you yes.”