Nobody likes fingerprints and smudges on their lenses, least of all the folks at Nanofilm, who spend much of their time and energy developing products that make it easy to keep eyewear clean. Known by ophthalmic dispensers and eyeglass wearers for products such as Clarity DeFog It—which, as the name suggests, prevents eyeglasses, protective goggles and face shields from fogging due to heat, cold or high humidity—Nanofilm also develops nanotechnology treatments that enhance glass and ceramic surfaces to provide special properties. These properties include easy removal of fingerprints from touch screens, making shower doors resistant to soap scum and dirt accumulation, stay-clean surface treatments for ceramic insulators and scuff-resistant treatments for commercial dinnerware.

When Krish Rao was named president of Nanofilm in 2014, one of his key qualifications for the job was an “ability to blend research and development expertise with an understanding of the realities of commercialization,” according to Nanofilm founder Scott Rickert, who Rao succeeded and who remains CEO of the Valley View, Ohio-based company.

Before being named president of Nanofilm, Rao, who holds a Ph.D., from the University of Utah in materials science and engineering, served as Nanofilm’s vice president of technology since he joined the organization in 2006. Over the course of his 35-year career, he has developed expertise in new product development and commercialization in fibers, plastics and film for diverse industries such as aerospace, automotive, power tools and construction. Rao’s experience encompasses rebuilding organizations for customer focus and speed and managing diverse functions such as R&D, quality control, quality assurance, materials management, manufacturing, technical services and joint ventures. He holds four patents and is the author of a variety of technical publications.

“Having a strong technical background allows me to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each innovation and to judge how well it fits with customer requirements,” says Rao. “My engineering background helps provide guidance in developing cost-effective manufacturing processes for all new products. My commercialization experience helps guide the company in evaluating a product’s performance from the customers’ perspective and appropriately direct the internal processes.”

In his Artist of the Lens profile, Rao offers insights about Nanofilm’s product development process and explains how the company educates both eyecare professionals and consumers about the value of its products and the importance of proper lens care.

—Andrew Karp

L&T: Before you were named president of Nanofilm in 2014, you served as vice president of product development for eight years. What were the most important products you and your team developed, both from a scientific and commercial perspective?

Rao: First, I must acknowledge the fact that our successes are due to the extraordinary talent at Nanofilm, whether it be in R&D or manufacturing, or process engineering or sales and marketing. In a period of eight years under my stewardship of R&D/commercialization, we introduced several families of products that have been well received by our customers.

Within the lens cleaner family, we introduced two products. One was designed specifically to clean AR lenses with “superhydrophobic topcoats.” This means we introduced a single cleaner to provide superior cleaning on every type of lens on the market. The second introduction was an “eco-friendly” cleaner formulated with biodegradable constituents and packaged in recycled materials.

A truly one-of-a-kind technology introduced in 2007 is the Clarity DeFog It product family, which is available as a liquid and as a towelette. Our products still remain the only anti-fog treatments in the market that work on every type of lenses and coating in all kinds of environments.

In the nano-coating area, we have commercialized a family of liquid spray coatings for glass and ceramic surfaces to make them water and dirt-repelling, and mar and scratch resistant. These coatings are applied by either wiping or spraying the surfaces with the UltraSeal liquids. What is unique about our technology is that the coating self-assembles itself within seconds to create a very thin, invisible, clear, protective layer permanently bound to the surface.

This year we also introduced two new delivery formats for our lens cleaners. One is a gel spray, which clings to the lenses better and won’t drip, and the other is foaming spray, which makes cleaning glasses and frames easier at home around the sink. It’s a superior substitute to the other harsh cleansers and rough fabrics around the house that could damage lenses.

In addition to the above, we have very recently started beta testing two more products. These are currently being evaluated by a select group of customers. One is an alcohol-free lens cleaner, and the second is a low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) towelette. Both of these have been formulated on the request of customers.

Nanofilm is already working on the next generation of lens cleaners that we anticipate will be introduced sometime in 2016.

Some dispensers or salespeople may assume lens cleaners are generic because they are clear liquids that come in a plastic spray bottle, or else are made of microfiber cloth. How do you educate them about the differences between Nanofilm and its competitors?
Unlike our competitors, we were founded as a technology company with a strong emphasis on original R&D. We have, in my opinion, capabilities and expertise that is best in the industry, grounded in our knowledge of nanotechnology and how to care for nano thin coatings on optical surfaces.

We have been selling to eyecare professionals for 30-plus years and have developed a reputation for consistent quality, service and the best performing products on the market, backed up by extensive third-party testing (COLTS Laboratories).
Over the years, we have conducted seminars and written several articles for eyecare professionals on the importance of educating customers on the proper way to care for lenses. This itself distinguishes us from some of our competitors.

In addition, we test our products against competitive products and share our testing results to customers, which they appreciate and trust.

Do clients typically come to Nanofilm with problems, or does Nanofilm tend to take the initiative and develop products in response to a perceived market need?
Our successes have come through both approaches. In several instances, customers have approached us with a need or a performance attribute that they were looking to deliver to the consumer. In fact, that is how we actually got into the lens cleaning business. One of our coatings’ customers asked us to develop a safe cleaning solution to clean an AR lens with a hydrophobic topcoat. Very interestingly, that topcoat was developed by us to help protect their AR coating.

In the case of several other products, we perceived the need first and developed the technology to help address that need. Then we worked with potential customers to validate the performance and deliver optimized formulations with their input.

One thing that I must stress is that irrespective of where the original idea comes from, we always work closely with the intended customer(s) to make sure that the products will deliver the desired value to their customers. We adopt this practice consistently with new formulations, as well as to new packaging concepts.

Nanofilm serves a diversified customer base in various industries. What are some other industries Nanofilm serves? What are some examples of optical products that have been developed through the cross-pollination of ideas from one industry to another?
Our nano-coatings have found use in diverse applications such as china dinnerware, ceramic insulators in subway systems, on touch screens and automotive navigation displays, on shower doors and decorated glass panels to name just a few. This is an area of very exciting growth for the company, as uses for these are growing rapidly into many different areas.

The foundation of our technology is the emphasis on understanding the “science of surfaces” and then creating the solutions for the problem. Whether it is lens care products or coatings, we characterize the surface of the final article and then use our knowledge of surfactants, polymers, chemical additives and chemical reactions to create a formulation that interacts at the nano-level.

An example of cross-pollination is when creating the hydrophobic topcoat (to protect AR treatments), we thoroughly characterized its surface energy properties. That information was very useful in selecting the synergistic combination of surfactants compatible with the low surface energy coating. This way, the cleaner stays on the lens surface long enough to emulsify the dirt and make it easy to remove.

Similar principles were applied in developing the anti-fog product to overcome the water–repelling nature of the lens surface to make it “temporarily water loving,” so that water would sheet instead of beading, eliminating any fogging.

In the coatings area, when formulating UV-cured or heat-cured nano-coatings for plastics, we applied our knowledge of surfactants (from lens cleaners work) to select ingredients that would migrate preferentially to the surface of the cured coating.

Looking to the future, our parent company PEN Inc. is now opening access to a larger array of innovative nano-technologies. We are very excited about being able to bring some of these pioneering technologies to our current market segment in the years ahead.

Few companies reveal new products before they are ready for market release, but Nanofilm lists products that are in development on its website and invites customers or technology partners to help in the final stages of product development. How long has Nanofilm been doing this, and what has resulted from these collaborations?
I mentioned earlier—we feel it is very important to get validation for a product or idea from customers. We have done this in one way or the other for at least 20 years now. In the final analysis, we must help our customers gain sales and see profitable growth, so that we can grow our business. This kind of early involvement, which we do on a selective basis, ensures that the product in its final form is useful and valuable to our customers and their customers.

Spectacle lens materials and coatings are continually evolving. That must present challenges for Nanofilm, since your products must be compatible with a multitude of substrates and coating formulations. How does Nanofilm stay on top of changes in lens technology?
Simple answer is in the company tagline: “Surface Science. Creative Solutions.”

We (our staff from all disciplines) try to stay abreast of the latest developments through industry publications such as yours, attending trade shows, technical journals, webinars and technical conferences. Sometimes some of our customers give us valuable information. We have confidentiality agreements executed with customers, potential customers, suppliers and vendors, all of which enable us to continue to grow our knowledge base in both the technical and commercial areas.

Most consumers don’t have lens cleaning products on their mind when they walk into an optical store, unless it is someone who has used our products earlier. That is a decision considered while in the process of purchasing lenses/glasses and is more of an impulse purchase. In-store merchandising and product packaging play a key role in attracting shopper attention. In addition, if the product packaging is engaging and has strong cosmetic appeal, the perceived value rises and consumers are more likely to purchase.

When a patient buys a new pair of lenses or eyeglasses, the doctor or retailer often includes a bottle of lens cleaner and a cleaning cloth to add value. Because the patient may perceive these products as “free” merchandise, does it devalue the products when the patient has to purchase a refill?
On the contrary, giving away lens cleaning products with the purchase of glasses is a great way to trial lens cleaners and experience their benefits. It is also an excellent method of teaching consumers the proper way to care for their expensive purchase. Using a lens cleaner instead of a shirt, a tie or rough paper tissue, a detergent or some industrial cleaner will prevent many common complaints—premature failure of the coatings, scratches. Not only does the doctor or retailer help the consumer, but they can help themselves by reducing the returns and reworks due to poor cleaning practices. Once people try the lens cleaners, they see the value and will purchase lens cleaners on their own and not wait until they purchase another pair of glasses, which may not happen for another two years.

Many consumers complain about the cost of their eyeglasses, yet I still see a lot of people wiping their lenses with a tissue or even a shirttail instead of using a lens cloth or cleaner. What is Nanofilm doing to teach consumers that proper lens care will protect their lenses and make them last longer?
We first have to consider when consumers are most “open” to learning about the proper care of their lenses/glasses. So we try to target our message when they are most engaged and thoughtful about the topic, which is when they purchase them in-store. We work with our retail partners to encourage sales associates to take the extra two minutes to explain the value of proper lens care. Once sales associates incorporate lens care education consistently in their dialogue with consumers, then lens care products will be included with almost every lens/glasses purchase.

We also supplement our “in-store” education programs with professional education to help eyecare professionals be a resource and expert for their patients on the latest lens care best practices.

Finally, we try to leverage our website as a resource for those who are seeking information and actively reach out to ECPs and consumers through digital marketing campaigns and PR. ■