EDITOR'S NOTE: The Frameri will be featured on Shark Tank May 1. Tune in at 8 p.m. on WCPO 9 On Your Side to cheer them on.
CINCINNATI - Konrad Billetz has plenty of entrepreneurial vision, but he’s smart enough to welcome a fresh set of eyes.
“They took my idea and made it better,” said Billetz, one of four founders of Frameri, a Brandery startup that makes eyeglasses with lenses that snap into multiple interchangeable frames. The goal is to make it easier and more affordable for consumers to use eyeglasses as a fashion accessory. It’s a concept Billetz invented while pursuing his MBA at Notre Dame, where Frameri won a $5,000 prize in the McCloskey Business Plan Competition in April.
Billetz refined his concept considerably after coming to Cincinnati in June for the Brandery’s 12-week startup accelerator program. Working with designers at The Launch Werks in Over-the-Rhine, Frameri shifted away from a latch mechanism that held lenses in place to lip-and-groove system that’s easier to manufacture.
“They said, ‘Yours isn’t going to work. Here’s what we’ll do,’” Billetz said. “They took our idea and made it a smooth, sexy looking product that we’re very excited about.”
The new Frameri product will get its first big test this week, when it is launched on the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo.
The company is trying to raise $30,000 by selling multiple packages of lenses and frames. The offerings range from a $150 set of two frames with prescription lenses to a $750 package of 10 frames and two sets of prescription lenses. The campaign launches with an event at the Brandery Monday night.
"It's always been frustrating to me that glasses are made the way they are," Billetz said in a promotional video prepared for the Indiegogo launch. "Why has no one come up with an easy way to change your look just like you would with any other accessory?"
Room for innovation?
The global market for luxury eyewear is projected to grow six percent over five years, reaching $20 billion by 2017, according to Taiyou Research.
It’s an industry dominated by the Italian company, Luxottica, which not only owns the word’s most popular eyewear brands but controls vision-care payment channels through its ownership of Eyemed, a vision insurer.
Billetz said his target market is the roughly three percent of consumers who buy eyeglasses online. It’s a market that’s expected to grow, providing new ways for eyewear marketers to reach consumers directly.
“We want to prove that people want flexibility on multiple pairs of glasses easily and affordably,” said Billetz. “We really want to be the glasses company for people who want to own multiple frames.”
A successful Indiegogo campaign would give Frameri founders enough money to get all of its current frame designs cut and processed in Italy. It could also improve the company’s chances of raising investment capital in the future.
“They’re taking a novel approach to disrupting an industry that everyone is familiar with,” said Brandery General Manager Mike Bott. “If you think about how women accessorize their wallets, purse and shoes, why not the thing that’s sitting front and center on their face?”
Ecosystem at work
Frameri is one of 10 startups that joined the Brandery’s 2013 class in June. Bott said it’s the first physical product manufacturer to take part in the startup accelerator. Previously, the Brandery focused on Internet-based companies and app developers because those concepts could be shaped more quickly in the three-month Brandery program.
Bott said other accelerators have been experimenting with manufacturing startups and Cincinnati is known for manufacturing innovation, so the Brandery invited Frameri as a first step into the territory. Based on how Frameri has developed in the last three months, Bott wants to find more companies like it.
“We wanted to have at least one physical product company this year,” said Bott. “As I look at it right now, I would be shocked if we don’t have at least one next year.”
Billetz said the advice he has received in Cincinnati has been “vital for us. They’ve helped us develop our packaging, our product, really determined how we’re going to go to market.”
That is of course the point of the Brandery and other local startup programs: To put entrepreneurs in contact with mentors and consultants who can help them innovate, target consumers, raise money and build better companies. It’s the kind of interaction that local business leaders have in mind when they talk about building an innovation ecosystem in Cincinnati.
But not every entrepreneur is able to capitalize on outside advice.
“A lot of times people will have a pre-conceived notion of how they want things to look,” said Noel Gauthier, co-owner of The Launch Werks, an Over-the-Rhine company that builds prototypes for companies launching new products.
Gauthier praises Billetz and his three co-founders – Kevin Habich, Ted Lichtenberger and Caelan Urquhart - for being open to new approaches on product design.
“They had a laser focus on how they wanted the customer to feel,” Gauthier said. “They wanted it easy to swap the lens in and out. But they were really open to letting us figure out the best way to do that.”
Working as a paid consultant, The Launch Werks not only altered the structure of the acetate frames that Frameri glasses will use, but it helped the company develop an epoxy solution that makes lenses more adaptable.
“The epoxy lets us get a complicated and accurate shape that we wouldn’t be able to grind into the glass,” Gauthier said. The new epoxy solution allows a “frictionless click” as it locks the lens in place and provides a way to “tint it and change the color” of the lens itself. Frameri has applied for patent protection on various elements of its design.
“They’ve been invaluable,” Billetz said of his Launch Werks advisors. “They set up our relationship with the polymer company. They’ll shoot e-mails through the day to our manufacturer in Italy. I’m over there almost every day now. Those guys have become my good buddies.”