For Dhruvin Patel, starting a business was always his goal. So when he came across an innovative idea while training to become an optometrist, he knew he had to give it a go. Using his knowledge of optometry, he created a range of blue light shields for devices and glasses and founded Ocushield, taking a Start Up Loan from Virgin StartUp to help get the business off the ground. We caught up with him to find out more...
What were you doing before you launched Ocushield?
Back in 2013 when I was studying to become an optometrist at City University in London, I was working at Vision Express to support myself and earn some extra money. One Saturday afternoon the lead optometrist brought the staff together and told us about this new product for people who wear glasses. The product was called Blue Control, which was effectively a coating that went onto glasses. If customers chose that coating it would help with eye strain because blue light from screens can cause eye strain.
I was really intrigued because I've grown up with my mum telling me that looking at screens is bad for your eyes. And I always wanted to know the reason for it, but she never really had one. So I thought that this might be the missing piece of the puzzle. I went back to university the following week and spoke to my faculty about doing a research project on how does blue light affect the eye's physiology and circadian rhythms across a nine-month period.
After I'd completed this project in 2014, I found that there were already a lot of studies into how blue light from screens cause eye strains, fatigue and headache. But also that using screens in the evenings suppressed melatonin, which is the hormone that allows us to sleep. I realised that these were big pain points for people and I wanted to limit my own exposure to blue light. I didn't wear glasses so I didn't want to buy a prescription pair of glasses just to get the blue light coating, it just didn't make sense. So I thought why can't we take that technology and put it directly on the device? So that's where the idea came from.
Where did you go from there?
At the same time, there was a Cass Business School competition, which is the sister university to City University. You had to submit an idea and there were two stages. First, you pitched to the general public, along with 30 other businesses. So I went along and pitched my idea of a filter for screens. I asked my university classmates to come and vote for me, and I got through to the next stage.
Then six months later I had to pitch to a panel of 50 tech entrepreneurs, who had a fake £1,000 investment that they would give to the businesses they thought deserved it. I remember being there and I spoke to 10 of the 50 judges because, unlike other businesses that had teams or co-founders, there was just me. I didn't think there was any chance that I would even get into the top three. But when they announced the winners I had won somehow. I got some grant funding from this, which really helped me to develop the first prototypes. For the next 12 months, I focused on creating the product. I set up a website and set up pre-sales so I had a little bit of money to get started.
Then in January 2015, from my university dorm room, I started the business.
Was it ever in your plan to start a business?
I think it was, definitely. Even as I chose optometry as the course to study, I loved helping people and biology so you had that aspect to it, but owning an optical eye business is a lot easier than in dentistry or general practice. I immediately saw that I could open an opticians, for example. It was definitely in the plan. When I was younger I had lots of different ideas and I executed some of them. I definitely had the idea that I wanted to do something in business as well.
Running an opticians is fantastic because you get that day to day patient feedback of how you've helped them to see. But I wanted to protect people's eyes on a larger scale and that wasn't possible from a local optician. By being online and having Ocushield we can serve a lot more customers and make a difference to more people. Even though I can't see all of those happy faces, we still get reviews and testimonials.
Where does Virgin StartUp come into your journey?
Back in 2015, I sought out a Start Up Loan from Virgin StartUp. I was matched with two mentors who helped with business set-up stuff. That was a really key thing to help us get started. That was the most important thing for us.
I think I applied for the smallest amount of funding because I didn't really know how much money I needed, but I needed the support. So I got the support, which helped me to work out what I needed. But what was more important to me was the time, the resources and the network that Virgin StartUp offered.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
I think back in March 2020 everyone was just unsure of everything. But then after a while, it became clear that Ocushield was solving a pain point that was exacerbated by lockdown because everyone was using screens more, whether it was for work or connecting with friends or family. That pain point of Zoom fatigue and sore, tired eyes really started resonating even more. So from a product and brand and marketing point of view, we were primed for the pandemic. It made people more aware of the impact that screen use was having on them.
What has been your proudest moment of running the business so far?
I think reaching a thousand five-star reviews was really great. I read the comments to see how our products have helped people to change their lives. We hear from people who get migraines and headaches and aren't able to work, but using our products they're able to. It helps their quality of life because they're not having to take time off work. We even get people say that they're sleeping better, which makes their day to day easier and happier. So that's probably the most rewarding part for me.
But second to that is probably going to pitch on Dragons' Den. I think for anyone thinking about going on TV to pitch anything, it can go one of two ways: it can go great and you get the outcome you're hoping for, or it can go badly and it can affect your business because you can get criticisms that can devalue your business. It's a big risk. But doing it has given me the confidence that I can pitch to anybody. If I've done that and we were in there for an hour and a half being grilled by the Dragons, then I can give a good pitch to anybody. Plus we managed to secure offers from both Peter Jones and Tej Lalvani.
What's next for Ocushield?
We're actually fundraising £600,000 for pre-money evaluation of £6 million. So we're giving away 10% of our business to reach the next stage, we want to become the one-stop-shop for eye care products and it's going to require some investment in team, sales and marketing, and product development so that's why we're fundraising. We're going to be closing that fund at the end of September.
We're just working hard to fulfil that vision. The pandemic has shown us that there's demand for eye care related products and we want to provide the best solutions because we've got a team of optometrists that can give the necessary expertise.