Fresh from Google Glass partnership, VSP eyes high-tech wearables

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By Thomas Lee

September 14, 2015 

No one will mistake VSP Global for Google. But the 60-year-old eye insurance company from the Sacramento suburbs has demonstrated a Google-esque ability to pursue opportunities beyond its core business.

VSP not only partnered with the search giant on Google Glass, but is now using that experience to develop prescription glasses loaded with sensors to track consumer health.

“We have to be an innovative company to stick around,” said incoming CEO Jim McGrann. “If we have to change what we do in any of our lines of business, we clearly will.”

Founded in 1955 by a group of optometrists in Oakland, VSP still owes most its $5 billion in annual sales to providing vision benefits to people who need eye exams and glasses.

But over the years, VSP has also decided to design and manufacture frames and lenses, and even help optometrists sell its glasses. The company recently developed lenses that help protect the eyesight of people who obsessively stare at the blue light emanating from the screens of smartphones.

Such commitment to innovation and reinvention has helped VSP generate sales growth every year, a remarkable feat given the amount of competition and technological change the company has encountered over six decades.

“There’s no pressure on me,” McGrann joked.

VSP expects total sales in 2015 to grow a healthy 6 percent, including 9 percent from its core insurance business.

“VSP is a very interesting company,” said Arkadiy Sakhartov, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The company has a very good track record of being successful in integrating new businesses. Their corporate strategy is very active.”

McGrann, who becomes CEO in October, is planning VSP’s boldest move yet — a push into wearable wellness devices now occupied by players like Fitbit, Apple and Google.

VSP was actually inspired by Google Glass. The company, which already provides vision benefits to Google employees, learned of the high-tech device in 2012, when Google debuted the product during a fashion show for Diane von Furstenberg.

Intrigued by Google Glass, VSP met with executives from Google the following year to explore partnerships. At the time, Google was only focused on a singular design for the device. Not only could VSP offer different frames and lenses, but the company could also use its relationships with optometrists to legitimize the device. VSP also began offering insurance plans for Google Glass owners.

After Google stopped selling Glass in January, VSP took away some valuable lessons for its own wearable line.

While Google Glass featured a small external camera outside the lens — a feature that upset some people due to privacy concerns — VSP has installed sensors inside the frame of eyeglasses that can track movement and even gait.

“Glasses are one of the first wearables to improve people’s lives,” McGrann said. “They say the eyes are the windows into the soul. But the eyes are also windows into your health.”

Thomas Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: Twitter: @ByTomLee