How Steve Devick developed a reading test that can also be used to detect concussions

Steve Devick started on his path to entrepreneurship in seventh grade at a job fair held at his school.

“I decided to be an optometrist,” Devick says. “I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody, deciding and sticking with what you want to do for your life’s work in seventh grade. But when I applied for college, I always put down pre-optometry as a major and that’s what I did.”

Devick went on to become a practicing optometrist, but he has accomplished a great deal more in his career. As a serial entrepreneur, he is the founder/co-founder of several successful public and private companies:
■  Platinum Entertainment, which was the world’s largest publicly traded independent music company.
■  Blue Rhino, the first and largest propane cylinder exchange company.
■  Platinum Technology, a software company with annual revenue of almost $1 billion.

“You’re responsible for large payrolls and large numbers of people and that’s fun, but it’s also a challenge,” Devick says. “Lives are depending on you to make things work. The challenge early on is the capital and the mental challenge of keeping your company on course so that the stakeholders get paid every week.”

In addition to being a prolific entrepreneur, Devick has also earned notoriety for a test that initially studied the relationship between eye movements and reading fluency.

“We just wanted to see if there was a correlation between how you move your eyes and how you read,” Devick says. “You would think somebody in the 70s would have checked that, but as far as we could tell, nobody had.”

The King-Devick Test is a rapid, one-minute eye movement screening that requires the patient to read single-digit numbers displayed on test cards and screens for impairments of eye movement, attention, language, concentration and other symptoms of abnormal brain function.

“Sure enough, we found that not all poor readers did poorly on the test,” he says. “But if you did poorly on the test, you were a poor reader. There was a correlation between how you move your eyes and how you read.”

A new discovery

The results of that finding were helpful, if not spectacular. Doctors at State University of New York found a research paper that Devick and his partner, Alan King, had written and soon the test became part of the school screening process in New York and other places.

“It told you if one of your issues with reading was that you couldn’t move your eyes well, but it didn’t tell you quite what to do about it,” Devick says. “It was not a big part of my life because I retired from doing eye exams in the early 90s.”

Devick pursued other business opportunities and became a successful serial entrepreneur.

“It was on my mind very little because to me, knowing that you couldn’t read well because your eyes weren’t moving so well was not too exciting,” Devick says. “We had yet to figure out other uses for the test.”

Five years ago, a new use was discovered. Devick was on the board of the Illinois College of Optometry and came across a New Zealand study about post-concussion syndrome cases.

“What they found was every one of their patients that had persistent symptoms after a concussion for many months had defects in their saccadic eye movement, which is what my test tests for,” Devick says. “So I got back all our rights and cancelled our distribution with everybody.”
Devick saw a business opportunity and went after it.

The King-Devick Test in association with Mayo Clinic has earned the support of more than 30 peer-reviewed published studies that consider it to be a quick and objective indicator of brain function in neurological conditions such as concussions, hypoxia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and extreme sleep deprivation.

And more than 50 other studies in peer-reviewed neurology journals have validated the King-Devick Test as an effective “remove-from-play” sideline concussion test.

The right moment

One of the most valuable lessons a parent can teach a child is to not quit. Life is not always fair, but you deal with it and you try again. In business, however, Devick says quitting is sometimes the right move to make.

“It’s all about abandonment and opportunity,” Devick says. “A typical business owner might work for a long time to open a restaurant. Once he gets it open, he won’t close it until he loses every dollar he has. The great CEOs aren’t the ones who just manage a business that is doing well and printing money. It’s the ones who start down a road that is not working and then they stop. We tell our kids abandonment is a bad thing. But in business, it can be a good idea.”

Devick set aside the King-Devick Test for a time and went on to accomplish great success as a serial entrepreneur.

Now the test can be administered with cards as well as an iPad or computer. And in this age of such attention being paid to concussions and protecting the safety of athletes, it’s a test that is viewed with much more value than it ever could have been decades ago.

“We want to make sports safer so parents will continue to allow them to play,” Devick says.