Diana Starr Langley: UV Insight and Foresight
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Diana Starr Langley — not an ophthalmologist! — created and marketed one of the first brands of UV sunglasses when people were still saying “ultraviolet” instead of UV and sunscreen was not even a product on the market.
Langley sold her company Dioptics Medical Products at age 26. She speaks with impactmania about her unusual upbringing with 30-plus boys in her parents’ delinquency school, how that experience taught her that work is not an eight to five job, and how she brought her company from startup to exit.
What made your parents start a delinquency school in their mid-twenties?
It’s the most unusual childhood. My father was an orphan. He was taken to a school called Starr Commonwealth in Michigan that my adopted grandfather started in his 20s in a barn.
He took in three boys that had no home. Nothing you could do today. This was in the early 1900s. The school is over 100 years old today.
My father was one of all the thousands and thousands of boys that went to that school. He was the skinny redheaded one. That really stuck out to my grandfather.
Because my father’s parents were alive somewhere — he hadn’t seen them since he was a baby — he was not legally adoptable. But grandpa Starr started to take him in.
From there, my father went to the Air Force and college. At 25 years old, my mom was 22, he was 25, my grandfather came to them and said, “A couple down in Van Wert, Ohio offered us 40 acres, an English Tudor mansion, and grounds to build another school.”
Both schools looked like college campuses.
By the 50s, there were delinquency schools. Orphanages had gone out, delinquency schools had come, and this is when I grew up. The students were truants. By the time I left living on campus at age 18, they were murderers, rapists, and arsonists.
Delinquency had changed over time from ‘James Dean’ to what we have today. But they were still kids.
How many kids were at the schools?
We had 150 at the campus in Michigan. We had 36 and went up to 48 at the school in Ohio. Kids ran away and we always went out and found them. The recidivism rate was so low compared to state schools. That’s why judges loved us because the kids didn’t come back very often. Once in a while, I’d say, “You’re back?”
I grew up with these kids. These boys were like my brothers. My dad died when he was 38. Mom was 36, she took over the school, and we continued to live on campus. I grew up in this English Tudor mansion with 25 rooms. I thought I was a princess my whole life. I guess I still believe that! [Laughs.]
You are still a Starr!
Yeah, [laughs.] Starr and the Starr Commonwealth is what it was called. Its slogan was: There’s no such thing as a bad boy. When they made the movie Boys Town, they used that line even though they weren’t supposed to. Years later on Jeopardy they said, “There is no such thing as a bad boy.” The answer was, “What did Father Flanagan say?”
They got it right, except if they’d gone back they’d know it originally came from my grandfather.
It was this very incredible background and heritage to have. I think your childhood makes you stronger either from bad or good things that happen to you. All that goodness and forgiveness around me made me very strong. Losing my father at a very young age made me the father of the family. I think that all affects you.
What did you learn living on campus and helping with the school?
The most important thing I learned was that work is not an eight to five job. There is a joke that you work eight to five everyday, start your own company, and then work from nine to nine.
You cannot start a company and get very far unless you’re willing to think outside the box, and Saturdays and Sundays aren’t a weekend. That work ethic came from my parents. The boys didn’t take care of themselves on the weekends. We still had to keep them working, keep them playing, keep them learning. I watched my parents work seven days a week and long hours and never complain. They were doing what they loved doing.
And persistence. You watch people start companies, but they give up too soon. There was some study that said it takes eight calls and most people stop at six.
When I started I didn’t set out saying, “Okay, I’m gonna make UV sunglasses.” That wasn’t kind of how it started. It was getting to know an industry. I always tell my daughter to go out, work in an industry, make sure you like the industry, make sure you like the people in the industry, and then find a niche.
People come up with a million ideas. Everyone comes up to me and says, “I have a great idea.” That’s not what makes a company. A company is based on an idea but an idea that solves a problem.
When I started the company at 26, I was already six years in the industry. I knew enough people. I had enough working knowledge. I knew enough to be dangerous. I also had just enough of not knowing that it can’t be done.
With what I know today, I would never go to the FDA and try to get approval.
They have people to do it, but at this age I’m not gonna fight that battle. It’s been so uphill. Whereas back then if they didn’t agree with me, “That’s okay, I know I’m right.” Eventually they had to admit I was right.
What was the first thing you did when you started Dioptics?
I was 26 when I was selling implants for cataract surgery. There were no videotapes back in 1979. It’s not like the doctors had a lot of ways to learn. A very big part of it in those days was: see one, teach one.
That’s what I did, which is why I loved my job so much. I got to hang out with the best surgeons in the world. They would teach other guys how to do it. It was very fun. During that time, I learned so much about cataract surgery.
Before these implants — small little contact lenses that go inside the eye after cataract surgery — came into being, people wore thick bottle glasses. They would wait as long as they possibly could, because the glasses magnified everything so huge that it was hard to pour tea! Your whole dimensions of everything were off.
With implants, now they had vision like a 20-year old. You could see the shift where people weren’t gonna wait until they were 90. They wanna have it done in their 60s. They were gonna go back out and play golf.
Again, nothing was proven, but I had enough of the pieces that UV could cause cataracts. I had read a Scientific American article involving cataracts — that plumbers got cataracts and coal miners didn’t.
Putting that together with the fact that people were gonna be younger getting cataracts, with this UV coming through their eyes, and going back to the retina.
You don’t have a medical background at all?
Just being a rep. I knew enough about ophthalmology. I knew enough about the eye. I had enough of the pieces of the puzzle. UV wasn’t even a term yet; it was still ultraviolet. Timing is everything. It was just when implants were starting. It was also on the coattails of the American Cancer Society starting to say that UV causes skin cancer.
Until the late 70s, we didn’t have sunblock. We didn’t have full UV protection in paint. That’s why paint used to peel. You never see peeling paint anymore. Curtains used to shred. Well, now they put UV protection in fabrics, so that these things don’t happen anymore. But none of that existed back then. It was just on the very beginning of all that.
At this point the FDA did not agree with me that UV caused cataracts. Of course they wanted 25-year studies. I didn’t have time to do 25-year studies.
Mine was all based on the ophthalmologist agreeing that it logically made sense. That if UV can cause a burn, if it can cause cataracts, then it can also hurt the retina over a long term. Therefore, putting UV protection would not hurt anybody.
In those days, you had to wear [normal] glasses after cataract surgery. I had to come up with a sunglass. I found a safety glass that was ugly as sin. Big wide side shields and everything. I said, “Okay, somehow we need to find a way to put UV in the polycarbonate so we can make the sunglasses.”
People must have thought you were crazy.
Yeah well, who wants to buy ugly sunglasses? I was 26 years old. It’s been almost 40 years. That sunglass is still around. It is still sold in every major chain in the country. It is still given out after every cataract surgery in this country.
The ugly sunglasses. If you would have taken that to any business school in the country, they would have said, “This is stupid. No one is gonna buy ugly sunglasses.” But people were utilitarian enough. If their doctor gave it to them it must be right.
Dioptics Medical Products still exists?
Yeah, they don’t own the sunglasses anymore. Dioptics was my company. Later somebody said, “That’s Diana’s optics.” I never thought of that. My friend mispronounced the word diopter, which is the unit of measurement for eyes.
I sold the sunglasses, called Solar Shields, to a private investor in 1996. He bought brand name companies.
I’m sure we’ve sold over 200 million pairs of ugly sunglasses. Then following that, I said, “Well, we need to put the UV in eyeglasses.” Then they won’t need the sunglasses. I went to a company called Optical Radiation, which was a small company. I’m sure my presentation was on poster board. I said, “You’ll make the eyeglasses for me and pick up the whole cataract market.” These guys bought into making the lenses. They said, “okay, little girl.” [Laughs.]
They put their polymer chemists on it. In those days, they were very yellow lenses. Again, all the things that could go wrong.
Who wants to buy yellow eyeglasses? So it took time for us to get people used to the yellow. Then over time the polymer chemists got better at getting a visible range. The line between visible and invisible is 400 nanometers.
One day, I had to come up with a name for the product so I could sign the contract. On the way up, I came up with UV and then 400 nanometers. So UV 400.
This is something that you do have to learn. There are so many things. Do you patent? Do you do this? I didn’t patent in those days. Because like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are not patentable.
They’re called the proprietary process. Nobody knows the whole formula and that’s what we did with ours. With one change in the product, you would have to re-patent it.
Patents versus design patents are expensive. Don’t spend $20,000 to $50,000 for your ego. All you’re doing is letting the world know that this is a cool invention.
Better spend the money and out market everybody. That’s what I did.
What has been a surprising learning for you?
I don’t know who that girl was…[Laughs.] I’m amazed at the tenacity that I have. The just complete focus of vision.
What were you thinking you were doing?
People go, “I’m gonna be a millionaire.” That’s their goal, or “I want to own a company”. The goal shouldn’t be, I want to build a big company. My goal was to do what I loved doing every single day. I just couldn’t help myself.
My sister later came on as CFO. And still is. We went to Michigan business school together. She bought our first computer and did all those things back in the 80s.
Can you define your products? Trying to create something out of nothing?
I still do that today, but I do it for philanthropy. I build events that are unique and unusual. For the rally [for the Boys and Girls Club] we netted 300 grand. We’ve raised almost $750,000 in three years.
You have been so active in both private and nonprofit worlds. Is there still a passion project left?
I’ve got another unique event I want to do. I’ve pulled together a dream team, people in the community that I’ve worked with who I love. We’re raising money and divvying it up among three or four non-profits.
I’m also exploring teaching other Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs up and down the Central Coast how to do a rally.
Give me a word that describes your journey so far.
Amazing…I can’t imagine how I got here. Growing up in a little rural town of 10,000 in Ohio. If I had stayed in Ohio, or if I was in Boston or San Francisco, those cities were slow to come on and accept implants. I happened to move to Newport Beach, and I was at the right place. They were called Cataract Cowboys in those days. They loved doing cataract surgery and putting implants in. They were traveling all over the world learning from the best. I was with a receptive audience.
At Johns Hopkins, they called them time bombs in the eye. Bright, bright men who were heads of departments that the schools are named after, they just couldn’t see it. Orange County, LA was great for it. They made you feel like you could do anything. No one was a naysayer. A lot of that makes a difference.
But if you just shut yourself up in your house and you don’t have that outside spirit, it’s a lot more difficult.
The home-based business is great, and it has a purpose. But you need to get out, you need the stimulation, you need peaking.
You need that space, even if you’ve only got a desk and you only go three days a week. I would encourage entrepreneurs to work out of their houses. Save the money, don’t get a fancy office. Go find a hub.