INTO THE LAB, OUT TO THE WORLD
Hermsen finds ‘second home’at MCC Prototype Design Lab,
making glasses more affordable and inclusive
When the arm on his glasses broke mid-project in the mountains of Colorado in 2004, James Hermsen went into MacGuyver mode. Like the beloved nuts-and-bolts TV hero, Hermsen surveyed the objects around him and started grabbing what was usable. A power drill, bit and a spool of neon yellow line from a weedwhacker would have to do the trick.
Drilling holes where the arms of his broken glasses connected to the frames around the lenses, he fed the repurposed line through and fastened it. He tried them on and adjusted them until they fit properly. Hermsen finished out the workday not knowing he had just stepped into the next chapter of his life.
Hermsen, 58, is now a local entrepreneur and inventor who specializes in designing and producing adaptive eyewear products. He’s been a mainstay at the Metropolitan Community College Prototype Design Lab since it opened to the public in 2017, where he modifies and tests his designs for three specialty eyewear products.
One benefits people with rare craniofacial anomalies, and the others make glasses more affordable and serve health care professionals. The Omaha Westside graduate credits the training and access provided at the Prototype Design Lab with leading to design breakthroughs and significant production time and cost savings. This access was made possible through the Fort Omaha Campus capital expansion.
Being a jack of all trades has allowed Hermsen to live “free range” — mixing business and personal interests, like cycling, entrepreneurship and world travel, while earning a comfortable living.
Before finding his purpose and his “second home” at the lab, Hermsen was never really interested in working in a specific career, but he was always motivated to live a particular kind of life. In addition to construction, his work history includes working as a fine dining server, mortgage broker, bicycle retail/repair, transportation and sales.
His varied experience helped him develop the office skills to manage a company, the sales skills to market his products, the technical skills to develop them and the people skills to succeed.
Like the weedwhacker line, seemingly unrelated parts have a way of finding their way into his designs. Components from guitar strings adorned the arms of the bright, red-framed glasses he wore as he worked on a small production run in the Prototype Design Lab in March. Parts of a bicycle spoke are fitted into the design of his ergonomic loupe strap product. The loupe strap is secured to surgical glasses, keeping dental hygienists, dentists and doctors’ magnifying focal lenses steady while they look down at their patients in the chair or on the operating table.
“The commercial side of construction is where you have to think things through and do a lot of problem-solving. That’s where I learned the most skills for this,” Hermsen said of his inclination for invention. “[My prototype designs use] an amalgamation of different parts and pieces. By having a diverse background, I was able to apply it to creating these [different eyewear products].”
Tinkering. Adjusting. Testing. Trying again (and again, many times more). Sometimes failing. Sometimes succeeding. Always learning. This is what prototyping is all about. The Center for Advanced and Emerging Technology (Building 24) on the Fort Omaha Campus is a special place that provides creators like Hermsen access to the expensive tools, equipment and training to turn concepts into completed projects.
Anyone with a membership can bring their ideas and designs to the 9,600-square-foot facility that houses a wide variety of fabrication equipment, including a fully stocked wood and metal shop.
After taking a required safety class, members have full access to available technology, including 3D printers and scanners; laser, vinyl and plasma cutters; CNC routers; milling, painting and finishing machines; and soldering and welding equipment. MCC staff assists with all aspects of projects, including design, file and equipment operation, as well as using the software that supports it.
Monthly membership rates are $25, plus the cost of materials. MCC students have free access. The College also offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science in Prototype Design.
A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP
Hermsen has been developing adaptive eyewear since 2006, when he secured a patent for sunglasses he created for people with an active lifestyle. He launched the startup, Spokiz (pronounced spoke eyes), to sell them. The design was inspired by the modification made to his own glasses two years prior.
Hermsen loved the simplicity of the solution and knew it had potential beyond the kayaking world, where his sunglasses first gained traction. In the years that followed, which included moving back to Omaha, he identified more uses for his patent to reach a broader audience — while still growing the Spokiz brand, selling the sunglasses to outdoor gear shops and sponsoring kayak races abroad.
Once he began developing eyewear for kids, relationships with the local optical community followed, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. In 2012, he also became acquainted with Melissa Tumblin, founder of the Ear Community. The small, Colorado-based nonprofit serves children with a rare condition called microtia, in which they are born either without an ear or with an underdeveloped one, making finding a pair of glasses that fit properly nearly impossible.
A few years before the Prototype Design Lab opened, Hermsen began working on a design that would serve microtia patients. Donny Suh (pronounced saw), the renowned pediatric ophthalmologist he would meet three years later, had created a separate design for microtia glasses in 2000, driven by his passion for innovation to help his patients.
“One of the things that really bothered me during the early course of my career was that whenever I saw kids with ear malformation, they would always walk around with glasses that did not fit properly. It broke my heart,” Suh said.
Suh said his original microtia glasses prototype design, made of nonrigid elastic material that could be stretched to secure over the top of the head, was difficult to use. Hersmen’s design, modeled from his Spokiz glasses, used a stronger but lightweight, adjustable monofilament strap that went behind the head. The right prototype for microtia patients was a blend of both models.
Hermsen presented Suh with the merged prototype shortly after their first meeting at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. The adjustable material from Hermsen’s design would replace the elastic material used in the overhead strap concept from Suh’s design. Keeping the behind-the-head strap from Hermsen’s original prototype gave the added flexibility and security needed. Suh immediately recognized that the new design would work for his patients.
A strong partnership emerged that paired Suh’s medical knowledge with Hermsen’s creativity and their shared passion for invention. They began making adaptive eyewear products under the limited-liability company, Suh Hermsen Strap. They have collaborated on two additional products since they began working together in 2015. Their ergonomic loupe strap for surgical glasses is a commercial product. Their OMNI glasses are an open-source, 3D printable glasses design, which makes them more accessible and affordable.
Suh, now chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology for the University of California, Irvine, said poor vision is too significant of a problem to go untreated in children, but some don’t receive the care they need because of the financial constraints their families face.
“Vision contributes to 75 percent of a child’s development. It helps them learn in school, play sports and improve their social interactions. I saw many patients who were falling behind. Early intervention is extremely critical and has the greatest return on investment to society,” Suh said.
Hermsen said working with Suh stretched his imagination for his designs beyond what would have been possible on his own. Suh said in addition to seeing Hermsen’s ability to innovate, he could tell he was the right kind of person to work with.
“Don’t get me wrong, James is an entrepreneur, but I could tell he had a good heart. Working with people with similar values was extremely important to me,” Suh said. “We were able to help children with microtia with these specialty glasses, and then the microtia community contacted us for help.”
‘HE ALWAYS HAS A TABLE’
Tumblin, the founder of the Ear Community, which creates awareness and connects families affected by microtia to resources and services, said when her daughter Ally was born with the condition, it was a mystery to her.
“When my daughter was born without an ear, I honestly didn’t know that was something that happened,” Tumblin said. “We’re a super small, underserved community. Most people haven’t heard of what our families are dealing with.”
Hermsen has been coming to Ear Community ’s annual picnics, providing free glasses to children with microtia for nearly a decade.
“He’s been able to help kids see and even accommodated some of the kids in our community to fit hearing devices into his designs, and he’s never asked for any money,” Tumblin said. “He’s always been a part of our events. I tell him, ‘You always have a table. Come and do what you do because it’s needed.’”
Tumblin said children who are affected by microtia have needs that go beyond the developmental. It’s also about fitting in. Both the microtia glasses and OMNI glasses feature colorful frames. The OMNI glasses have an adjustable nose bridge, which makes them work for individuals with any pupil distance. The round lenses, while fashionable, are also functional. They can be rotated to correct for astigmatism.
Both designs send the message, “Look at me!” to a world that sometimes looks away or stares too long.
“Children in our community often don’t have another child like them in the classroom. They’ve never seen someone like themselves. Many doctors don’t have a patient like our daughter in their practice,” Tumblin said. “James has helped so many families in our community and put smiles on so many of our kids’ faces. He’s so creative.”
What strikes Tumblin about Hermsen is that unlike her and Suh, he doesn’t have a personal connection to microtia.
“He doesn’t have a child or sibling who is affected by this. He just fell in love with our community,” Tumblin said.
WHERE CREATIVITY AND TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE MEET
Hermsen and Suh’s ability to invent predated the Prototype Design Lab, as did their desire to use their knowledge to benefit others. The Prototype Design Lab simply provided a place with the access, tools and available support to put their ideas to the test and make them possible to scale.
Before Hermsen had access to the Prototype Design Lab, the parts had to be hand soldered together. A mold to manufacture the frames in the U.S. would cost around $20,000. It was also impractical for a small company to manufacture a niche product in mass quantities. The design iterations needed to be tested before printing thousands at a time.
“We’ve redesigned the OMNI glasses countless times, and that can be where the Prototype Design Lab makes a huge difference. You can make a design change and print the prototype all in the same day,” Hermsen said. “You can also do production runs here at lower quantities and still do enough to have value. This is state of the art and all I really need.”
The training available is also a valuable piece. All members of the Prototype Design Lab take a class to learn how to use the equipment safely. They also have access to staff to assist with projects, from concept to completion.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without MCC. We reached out to many organizations, and MCC was the one that came through and supported us, not only with emerging technology, but also with the tech support and training — James got all of that at MCC, and we are so very grateful,” Suh said.
Ken Heinze, MCC Prototype Design Lab coordinator, said playing even a small part on “a project that might be helping someone is enormously gratifying.”
Heinze said all ideas are welcome at the Prototype Design Lab, from designing a set for a podcast to a giant merry-go-round for a game show.
“This is a place where everybody is welcome, where we can find a way to help move a project forward, no matter what it is. If you have an idea, we’d love to talk to you because we have a machine here that’s going to completely change your outlook on your project,” Heinze said.
Chances are your project can also change someone’s outlook on life.
A NEW OUTLOOK
In August, Hermsen had just returned from his first mission trip with Suh to Ensenada, Mexico, joining a group of volunteers with Rotary Club International’s Newport Beach and Ensenada chapters, as well as medical students from University of California, Irvine. With donated lenses, hundreds of children and adult patients were fitted with OMNI glasses for free.
“The beauty about the OMNI glasses is not only that they’re versatile, adjustable and cost-effective, but we are able to make them in about 10 minutes, so on a mission trip like that, you’re really seeing the finished work in the time that you’re there,” Suh said. “They are inspiring young medical students in public health. They saw how ideas and innovation can make a significant impact in the lives of people.”
Since beginning making glasses for children with microtia, Hermsen has received countless texts, emails and video messages thanking him. Being in the field, participating in the fitting process and seeing children and families expressing joy and gratitude after receiving the OMNI glasses strengthened his commitment to the work.
“It’s become my purpose, my focus and how I like to spend my time. I don’t do a lot of the things I used to because I’d rather be doing something more beneficial. If I were just doing it for the money, I wouldn’t get to see a lot of these children and experience the direct connection with the family,” Hermsen said.
As Hermsen and Suh’s adaptive eyewear products continue to reach the people who need them, new opportunities are unfolding. A project serving people in Cambodia is in the works, and efforts to grow the usage of their adaptive eyewear products with local health and human services nonprofit organizations are also happening.
“My goal is to take this experience, bring it home and plug it into underserved communities in Omaha. I’m getting closer to being able to launch this in my backyard,” Hermsen said.