RALEIGH — In 2018 Sasha Surkin was a 14-year-old who loved the Sunday New York Times. In print. Her parents got her a subscription for Christmas and it was in one such paper that Surkin read an article about a major obstacle to global health and prosperity: vision correction.
The article stuck with Surkin, who had her own experiences with vision issues starting in the sixth grade. For most of us, we get glasses and move on, but for those who have a lack of access, the problem of not being able to see has tremendous impacts.
“It affects GDP [and] literacy rates,” Surkin explained. “This is actually something that we need to be paying attention to.”
As it happened, Surkin’s next optometrist appointment was only a few weeks later and she found herself asking questions about the equipment. In the following years, Surkin, a student at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, did a research paper on the economic and social costs of a lack of access to vision care. In 2021, at the age of 18, she started WeyeZE.
Surkin can’t talk about the product in detail yet, but the idea is to provide a kit to facilitate the improvement of spherical errors – essentially nearsightedness or farsightedness. The kits are in beta testing, with a goal of reaching 100,000 users in 2024.
To reach that population, Surkin is seeking to test a future prototype kit in various populations including schools and rural areas of North Carolina. She has also traveled to Alaska to pitch the concept to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
“It takes a little bit longer to do iterations,” Surkin explained. “[They] require a little bit more funding. But in terms of concrete plans, I’m just looking to do I’m looking for accelerators that will really allow me to put my head down and work on this.”
The other challenge for Surkin is her schedule. She’s currently enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill, in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, and seeking a minor in Media and Journalism. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for running a business.
“This coming summer is going to be really valuable because I’m going to have all this time available to focus just on my startup,” Surkin told me, then noted, “which is also nerve-wracking because my classmates are all doing internships at banks.”
Surkin is preparing for her summer of work by planning to fundraise again in the coming months. WeyeZE most recently won an NC IDEA Micro grant this fall and Surkin took the stage at the Ecosystem Summit earlier this month to share her story. Surkin spoke enthusiastically, not only about the issue of vision for all but also about the idea of entrepreneurship. NC IDEA President and CEO Thom Ruhe is a big fan and is thrilled to support Surkin’s passion.
“That’s one of the best parts of my job,” Ruhe told me at the event, indicating Surkin. “[Supporting] someone like Sasha, that’s going to change the world.”
Others have taken notice as well. Surkin won a Bowman-Brockman Endowment from the School of Science and Math early in the process, allowing her to start prototyping and get a mentor. In 2020 she won a $50,000 investment from the Archangel Dreamer Competition for her start-up, then called “ClearCare.”
In 2022, the WeyeZE mission was featured in the film “Sight Unseen”, which appeared in the ConnectHER International Film Festival. The WeyeZE solution won an award for the “Most Innovative Solution” presented.
Surkin was thrilled to “fuse” her passion for WeyeZE with her interest in media and film-making.
“My dream actually is – well, not my dream because I have a lot of those,” she corrected herself. “But I would love to do something in entertainment.”
In case you need the reminder, Surkin is still just 20 years old. She is keenly aware of her incredible fortune in starting so early and being able to build WeyeZE while still in school. But she’s alert to what comes after.
“Learning that a startup is what really fuels me is scary in itself because it’s not what everybody else around me is doing,” Surkin confessed. “But it’s fun. Most of the time.”
Her 21st birthday is coming up in February, a milestone she is both looking forward to and anxious about.
“It’s, you know, the beginning of a whole existential crisis decade,” she said.
No one tell her about her 40’s.