The Charger Blog

Alum Leads the Effort to Develop Bioengineered Cornea

Dr. James Socks '86 MBA credits his degree from the University of New Haven with helping him to excel as a leader in the field of ophthalmology. He now has his eyes on giving back – and to engineering a product with the potential to help countless people in need around the world.

March 7, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. James Socks '86 MBA in Istanbul
Dr. James Socks '86 MBA assisting a surgeon performing a corneal surgery at a hospital in Istanbul.

During his more than four decades in the field, Dr. James Socks '86 MBA has traveled around the world, holding prominent positions in ophthalmic research, marketing, and executive leadership. He believes earning his graduate degree from the University gave him an edge in a variety of his roles.

The CEO of Cornea BioSciences, a biotechnology company developing a bioengineered cornea, Socks is excited to be doing important work that, he hopes, will make an important difference in the lives of countless individuals around the world – particularly those in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC).

"There's got to be a way to reach out to people in countries around the world who are really in need," said Socks, who now lives in southern California. "It creates a lot of challenges. There are people around the world who can't afford a corneal transplant, and we want to find a way to make that possible for them."

'The quality of faculty'

Socks, who grew up in Newport, RI, was inspired by his uncle, an optometrist who taught him about the profession. After earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Rhode Island, he moved to the West Coast, earning a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of California at San Diego and a Doctor of Optometry degree from Southern California College of Optometry.

Socks graduated while the Vietnam War was in full swing. After joining the U.S. Navy and spending a year in Vietnam, he was stationed at a hospital in San Diego. His career eventually brought him to Groton, Conn., where he was part of applied vision research at a medical research laboratory. As executive officer of the lab, Socks realized there were certain skills and knowledge that he wanted to build. Eager to become adept in areas such as personnel management and finance, he decided to pursue his Master of Business Administration.

"There's no question in my mind that having the MBA from the University at the end of my name certainly played a role in landing the position." Dr. James Socks '86 MBA

As a candidate in the University of New Haven's MBA program, Socks continued his full-time work with the U.S. Navy. While managing his responsibilities with the Navy and to his family, he commuted to the University from Groton to complete his degree.

"One of the attractive points of the program was that I had that flexibility," he said. "I was struck by the quality of faculty, and I was very pleased. I had a lot of real-world experience, and there was a lot of knowledge sharing with the other students in the program. I think that helped me – especially in my interactions with the other students and the faculty. That really carried me through and helped me in the future."

'Do I want to retire and play golf?'

After nearly a decade in Connecticut and more than 20 years in the Navy, Socks transitioned into the private sector. He accepted a position with Alcon Laboratories, a leading ophthalmic company that specializes in eye-care products. His new career presented myriad new opportunities for him to further develop his skills – and draw on those he'd cultivated in his MBA program.

"There's no question in my mind that having the MBA from the University at the end of my name certainly played a role in landing the position at Alcon Laboratories," said Socks. "I went there for a job in which I was responsible for running over-the-counter clinical research, and, a few years later, I moved to international marketing, thanks, I believe, to having an MBA from the University."

Dr. James Socks '86 MBA
Dr. James Socks '86 MBA

While at Alcon, Socks traveled constantly. It was, in part, his travels and the people he met who inspired him to make another major change: a move to China. Fascinated by the culture, Socks partnered with a colleague and friend who was a native of China, a colleague he'd helped mentor while at Alcon. It was the late 1990s, and Socks says the country was far less developed than it is today. While navigating the wide-ranging challenges of going into business in a new country, Socks built an eye-surgery center and, later, established a small chain of optical shops.

"We were welcomed in, and we brought new technology," said Socks. "It was a fantastic learning experience. I made great connections there."

Four years later, Socks returned to the United States, settling in southern California. There, he served in leadership roles at Acu Focus, Inc., a medical device company. After about a decade with the company, Socks began to set his sights on giving back. While visiting Ottawa, Canada, he learned about work being done to develop a biosynthetic cornea. Though the project was on hold and not yet ready for market, Socks was interested. A biosynthetic cornea is something that, he says, is badly needed, especially in LMICs.

"I wondered how to reach out to those in need," he said. "I had to decide, do I want to retire and play golf and go to the beach? That didn't hold an interest for me. I wanted something that would hold my interest, challenge me, and help people. I was inspired by Patagonia's business model, that it's okay to make money as long as you do right by your customers. I thought we could apply that to what we were doing."

'We've done good for the world'

Socks set out to do just that. He and a team of scientists in Canada conducted research and development work to prepare the cornea for market. Despite their progress, their work came to a halt because of a very different medical need: stopping the COVID-19 pandemic. While they were preparing to relocate the company to the United States, the pandemic spread rapidly, shutting down the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Though the team lost two years, they have rallied. Now in fundraising mode, they're continuing to ready the cornea for market. Socks believes that, if fully funded, they could have the product on the market in less than a year.

That, he says, is important for those around the world who don't have the access to eyecare that many people living in countries such as the United States enjoy. Many of the leading ophthalmologic companies, he says, focus on and offer their premium products to individuals in mainly western countries and to individuals who have insurance to help them pay for eyecare.

But, he wondered, what about everyone else who can't afford such care? That's who he hopes a bioengineered cornea will benefit. The goal is that such a product would make receiving a new cornea more affordable and attainable for countless people around the world.

"Having been to low- and middle-income countries, I saw the low level of eyecare," he said. "I wondered how to make it better. I'm hoping to reach more and more people who are in need. If we can, say, help someone who is trying to support her family and she's blind, someone who can't see because she's suffering from corneal disease or maybe river blindness, and we can restore her sight, how much better is that? We've done good for the world."