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Feeling tired? A Pittsburgh startup says caffeine eye drops could help

CEO holds his company's eye drop bottle
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Revitalize Energy CEO Kyle Guinness said his company sells caffeine eye drops to help to reduce eye fatigue, which results from prolonged screen time.

It’s not a caffeine injection straight to the veins, but depending on your perspective, it might be the next best thing. Following two years of development, East Liberty-based startup Revitalize Energy will soon launch sales of eye drops that contain caffeine.

While the drug is present at low levels in the product, Revitalize CEO Kyle Guinness said it helps to reduce the eye fatigue that workers and students can feel after spending hours staring at a computer screen. Guinness said he first had the idea in 2019, when he was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh with poor study habits.

“I was kind of the king of procrastination. And because of that, I would try to squeeze as much as I could into the five or six hours before my stuff was due,” he said. “And one thing I noticed was, after a very long time behind a screen, I was always tired.”

So he started to look for solutions, or “productivity hacks,” and eventually discovered that, instead of drinking coffee, it’s possible to consume caffeine through the eyes.

“There's products that are very similar in a lot of different Asian markets … which have very similar work cultures to the United States — so, very intense, very long hours, things like that,” he said. “And a lot of those jobs are behind screens.”

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Guinness said Revitalize has partnered with scientists who specialize in over-the-counter drug development to formulate its eye drops, ensuring they meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s safety requirements.

Revitalize plans to begin shipping the product to customers by June 14.

Unlike coffee and other energy drinks, Guinness said, the drops pinpoint the root cause of eye fatigue without impacting the rest of the body. As a result, they don’t cause an increased heart rate or a subsequent crash, he said. Rather, they carry caffeine and an amino acid directly to the focus adjustment mechanism of the eye, where the strain of prolonged screen time often occurs.

“We don't like to talk about this product as a replacement for your morning cup of coffee,” Guinness said. “It's really designed for [situations where you are] struggling at 2 p.m. and you need something to get you through the rest of your day.”

He said the effect usually lasts between one and three hours, meaning if users can still get a good night’s rest if they take the drops by 7 or 8 p.m.

‘Eye’ tried it

So what do the drops feel like? I tested them to find out.

Guinness said it is safe to wear contact lenses while using the drops, so I kept mine in. (Guinness noted that contacts create a barrier to absorption that can blunt the drops’ impact.)

Immediately upon applying the drops, I felt a mild burning sensation. While uncomfortable, it was not painful and lasted only for several seconds. Guinness said menthol helps to create this “cooling” effect, stimulating the tear ducts and allowing the eye to better absorb the product.

Almost instantly, my eyes felt more open and awake — I could feel the menthol at work — and my head felt clearer. This feeling lasted for about two hours, and it made me feel more energized than I had before taking the drops.

Revitalize has yet to conduct randomized controlled trials to determine whether its eye drops have an energizing effect beyond the refreshed feeling you can get from more generic artificial tears.

Use responsibly

Guinness admits the concept of caffeine eye drops polarizes people, with some eager to use the product and others who don’t want it anywhere near their eyes. Through market research, he said Revitalize has found that enough people value the convenience of the product and its effects to sustain a business. He said students and professionals between the ages of 18 and 25 have been most receptive, especially since COVID-19 touched off an explosion in remote work and screen time.

Revitalize has raised $175,000 in investment, according to Guinness, having received the bulk of its funding from the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Innovation Works. Revitalize participated in Innovation Works’ AlphaLab Gear startup accelerator last year.

While the idea of caffeine eye drops frightens some, the drug is generally safe, according to Dr. Daniel Laroche, president of Advanced Eye Care of New York and a clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But he noted that problems could emerge with excessive use of Revitalize’s eye drops.

“My concern in having a product like that that's readily accessible to younger folks. … we don't know what that's going to do to some of those people,” he said. There could be side effects, he added, that materialize only once more people begin to use the product.

Guinness acknowledged that people can become addicted to eye drops. Therefore, Revitalize advises customers to use its product no more than four times a day.

Customers can pre-order the drops on Revitalize’s website — and soon, on Amazon.