A New Vision For Athletes

One Xcel's eye shields already have major-league backing

Two years ago, Ed Jarvis' 16-year-old son Ryan got poked in the face on his high school basketball court. The injury severed his optic nerve and blinded him in his right eye. A few months later, Ed allowed his son to resume playing basketball and football--provided he wear special shields to protect his good eye. But the two soon discovered that standard protective visors scratch easily, fog up, and cause visual distortions. Set on helping his son continue playing, the older Jarvis, then chief executive of food distributor Demakes Enterprises Inc. in Lynn, Mass., set out to design a better face guard.

He appears to have succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. Months before they were due to hit stores in early July, Jarvis' One Xcel visors for football and hockey helmets had already racked up strong endorsements from ophthalmologists and sports associations across America. Jarvis also snared plum distribution agreements with sporting goods makers. And he hopes to have a special protective goggle for basketball players ready by next February.

"A SENSE OF PURPOSE." If athletes also like what they see, Jarvis' personal mission could have a profound impact on safety in contact sports. It may also pull in millions of dollars for One Xcel Inc., the company that Jarvis started in Danvers, Mass., to develop and market the product. "It wasn't my intention to enter the optical or sporting goods business," says Jarvis, age 45. "I just wanted to provide my son with the right equipment. But I've learned that to have a product, you need a sense of purpose."

It helps, of course, to stumble on a genuine social need. Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., estimates that nearly 44,000 Americans suffered sports-related eye injuries in 1994. And face guards are potentially the best protection against such injuries.

Unfortunately, even in sports that require helmets, eye protection is inadequate. Jarvis collected plastic visors from different manufacturers and sent them to a private optical laboratory. "They called me back and said that there was no optical design in any of the polycarbonate products," he recalls. The visors were simply pieces of plastic that were shaped to accommodate helmets.

Recognizing the challenge--and the business opportunity--ahead, Jarvis left Demakes. He sought out experts in optics, ophthalmology, and new materials as consultants, and in January, 1995, launched One Xcel. When he needed cash, venture capitalists at BancBoston Capital Inc. invested more than $1 million in return for a 50% stake.

With a staff of five and a team of outside experts, Jarvis reinvented sports visors. He varied the outer and inner curvature and thickness of the plastic lenses to reduce distortion and coated them to prevent fogging and scratches. He also expanded the visual area from the customary 180 degrees side-to-side to 205 degrees. All that costs money. Prices for football shields could run as high as $40--about 15% more than other visors. But eye-injury experts say it will be worth the premium. "It's a superior product," declares Dr. Jack Jeffers, team ophthalmologist for the Philadelphia Eagles, who has examined the One Xcel shield.

In fact, One Xcel will be the only shield used by National Football League players next fall. Jarvis also has firm endorsements from the American Hockey Coaches Assn. and the National Hockey League. To sell the shields, Jarvis has signed exclusive marketing agreements with Karhu U.S.A. Inc., a maker of hockey sticks and other gear, and Riddell Inc., the football helmet supplier.

Will the players go for it? Former New York Ranger Dave Maloney, who coaches youth hockey in Greenwich, Conn., thinks professionals will welcome a shield that doesn't distort vision because "the slightest edge can make a great difference." If it also saves the eyesight of thousands of sports enthusiasts, Jarvis will consider his success complete.

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