KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) -- Steve Dunn, chief technology officer at WaveForm, makes an adjustment to one of the many different machines he uses to determine what type of contact a patient might need.
For centuries, traditional eye exams have relied on the repetitive mantra, "Which is better, one or two?" as patients are asked to identify which trial lenses help them see more clearly.
What if those tedious exams could be replaced by emerging technology that calculates eye corrections and provides 28 times more information as quickly as the blink of an eye?
And what if that technology could help a sight-impaired grandparent see his grandchildren for the first time?
Welcome to WaveForm, where all of this and much more already is possible.
Based in Kalispell, WaveForm now is an industry leader in developing refractive "wavefront" technology to optimize vision through improved eyeglass and contact lens technology.
Wavefront technology has been developed over the past 15 years or so, drawing from adaptive optics technology that's used in applications such as space telescopes, said WaveForm President and Chief Technology Officer Steve Dunn.
A wavefront is a physical representation of the optical quality of a light beam.
In simpler terms, imagine light traveling as a bundle of light rays. If one were to draw lines perpendicular to the tips of that bundle of rays, it creates a wavefront map. An eye with perfect vision has a wavefront that's completely flat, while the wavefront of an imperfect eye is irregular.
It's complicated technology, Dunn admitted, but in layman's terms, wavefront aberrometry — aberrometry is the measurement of the imperfections in the optical system of the eye — is an advanced optical measuring technology that measures 28 levels of aberrations within the human eye.
The technology was first embraced by refractive surgeons for LASIK surgery about a dozen years ago. Dunn, who works in a research and development facility next to Dolan Family Vision at 32 Village Loop in Kalispell, has taken wavefront technology to the next level by developing highly customized WaveForm contact lenses.
"This is really home-grown incubated contact lens technology," he said. "We calculate the correction for lenses and place that correction over the pupil and not in the geometrical center of the lens. We're the only ones in the world who do this."
By placing the correction over the pupil, WaveForm can handle the most complex eye problems, such as keratoconus, high astigmatism and other medical conditions that affect vision.
"The real 'wow' comes from these people with medical issues who can't find solutions," he said.
Dr. Doug Dolan, whose eye clinic next door is a beta site for WaveForm testing, said the advanced technology is a good resource for his patients.
"The more I use it, the more I find it invaluable," Dolan said. "It's a great starting point to be able to quantify problems."
Dunn can manufacture up to 100 contact lenses a day in his WaveForm laboratory. Once the wavefront technology is perfected for producing multifocal contact lenses — and it's only a matter of time before that happens — WaveForm would move to a bigger facility in Kalispell.
"Our financial model shows us growing in three years to 50 to 100 employees," Dunn said.
With an onslaught of baby boomers ready and waiting for quality custom multifocal contact lenses, there's a captive audience for the production of such lenses.
Dunn began his optometry career in 1967, eventually taking over a practice of 10,000 patients in Hawaii in 1986. He retired in 1997 and relocated to Whitefish in 1998.
He was drawn back into the optometry field about 10 years ago and founded WaveSource Inc. in 2004 as an intellectual property management company to license and develop nonsurgical vision optimization applications.
Dunn's first round of research was done in the back of his wife's art studio in Whitefish.
WaveSource Inc. is the corporate entity for WaveForm, a privately held company with opportunities for private investment.
A year ago WaveForm got $800,000 in private equity funding to move forward with research and development for production of custom multifocal contact lenses. In addition to the private investment, the company received $87,633 from the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology to develop the final technology to manufacture WaveFront Guided Multifocal custom lenses.
Dunn said funding from the Montana board has been crucial for WaveForm, and he has applied for a follow-up grant for clinical work. He also said local support from Montana West Economic Development and Kim Morisaki, manager of business development for Montana West, has been very helpful.
While WaveForm essentially is a contact lens company, the firm built an eyeglass component into the business model for another layer of diversity. From 2008 to 2010 WaveForm worked diligently to create optimized wavefront refraction technology needed for the eyeglass component.
Once the eye doctor assesses the refraction, the frame information and eyeglass lens material is recorded into WaveForm's order entry screen and information is stored on a secure server in Kalispell. With the press of a button the order is sent to WaveForm's free-form eyeglass lens manufacturing lab in Thailand.
All of this can happen within 5 minutes from start to finish, Dunn said, leaving the eye-care practitioner more time to provide medical diagnosis and treatment, see more patients and increase practice profitability.
"At the end of the day, this company will get into the eyeglass manufacturing business, too," Dunn said. It will make sense to expand to both sides of the business."
WaveForm will launch the optimized wavefront refraction technology at the Sept. 24 Vision Expo in Las Vegas, then a week later Dunn heads to a similar trade show in Paris.
"This is the most fun and the most exciting work I've ever done," Dunn said. "We were pioneers in soft lenses, and this (new technology) takes it global."
David Israel, Dunn's business partner, serves as a consultant and is based in San Diego. WaveForm's board of directors hails from Kalispell and includes Ty Weber as chairman, Jerry Meerkatz, Will Schmaultz and Kristen Heck.
"The board was insistent that this be a Montana-based company," Dunn said.