The center of the tech world finally seems to have discovered a technology that’s already at the center of many people’s lives: hearing aids. In recent months several hot Silicon Valley venture-capital-funded startups have emerged aiming to address one of the world’s biggest consumer technology opportunities — reaching the tens of millions of consumers with hearing loss who currently don’t use hearing aids.
The latest new company to jump into the market is Eargo, offering an entry-level rechargeable hearing aid (FDA class I medical device) that it sells directly to consumers. Eargo is a near-invisible in-the-canal device offering four volume settings. Developed by a French ENT, it features patented silicone “flexi-fibers” that enable the device to sit comfortably deep in the ear canal while letting air and natural sound flow freely to the eardrum. At $1,980 per pair, the Eargo hearing aids are more expensive than many of the new off-the shelf “hearables” (classified as personal sound amplification products, or PSAPs, by the FDA), but less expensive than the higher end hearing aids fitted by audiologists.
With $13 million in venture capital backing, Eargo made a splash when it came out of “stealth mode” last week, unveiling a slick consumer web site offering a complete product package, including an elegant portable carrying case that doubles as a daily recharger. The Silicon Valley tech media got behind the company, with TechCrunch going so far as to declare that “Eargo is the hearing aid of the future.” (Click on the link for Hearing Tracker’s preliminary review of the Eargo hearing aid).
One might think that hearing aids — chock full of technical innovations including digital signal processors, directional microphones, adaptive sound processing software, sophisticated Bluetooth communications circuits and other wireless chip technologies — would be a natural market for Silicon Valley technologists and the venture capitalists who back them. But in fact most of the world’s leading hearing aid developers are in Europe — three of them in Denmark, one in Switzerland and one in Germany. Only one of the “Big Six” manufacturers (who in total produce an estimated 80-percent-plus of the world’s hearing aids) is based in the U.S. — but it’s in Minnesota.
To be fair, one of today’s leading hearing aid brands, ReSound, was founded in Silicon Valley decades ago by legendary hearing industry entrepreneur Dr. Rodney Perkins. But ReSound was acquired long ago by GN (Gerd Rosenstand), a Big-Six manufacturer located in Denmark. Since then there’s been little action in hearing aid technologies in Silicon Valley…until now.
In the past two years, several promising startups in the hearing assistance market have gotten off the ground in the Bay Area. Soundhawk, founded by (the same) Dr. Rodney Perkins, raised $11 million in venture capital funding to develop and deliver a PSAP that looks like a Bluetooth earpiece but provides hearing-aid quality sound amplification (for less severe hearing loss levels). See HearingTracker’s review of the Soundhawk personal sound amplifier.
And another Bay Area company, iHear Medical launched an IndieGogo campaign to raise capital for final development of a $200 invisible hearing aid with advanced sound processing and patented micro-miniaturization technologies. As of July 2015, however, the company still hadn’t shipped the new product.
What does the new interest in hearing aids among the tech elite mean for consumers and audiologists? For consumers, it means more product choices with good technology at new price points, providing hope for those who have been frustrated by the high price and/or features of conventional hearing aids.
For audiologists, it’s a more complicated issue. While it’s a technically classified as a hearing aid, Eargo comes with pre-programmed amplification settings that the customer can use without getting an audiogram or other medical evaluation. Customers must sign a waiver saying they’ve been informed that a medical consultation is advisable and want to buy the hearing aids without further service from an audiologist or other professional. Audiologists worry not only that low-priced entry-level hearing aids purchased directly from the manufacturer take prospective patients away from them, but also that many consumers will be frustrated that their hearing aids don’t provide adequate benefit and/or do further damage to their hearing – with amplification that hasn’t been tuned for their specific hearing profiles.
Silicon Valley has long been a leader not only in developing new consumer technologies, but also in finding new ways to market, sell and deliver those products to customers. Now that it’s turned its attention to the hearing health business with serious commitments of venture capital financing, we can expect to see even more new personal amplifiers and hearing aids — along with new ways to sell, service and support consumers — coming from the Bay Area.
About David Copithorne
David has been blogging about hearing issues for a long time. As someone who has progressed from mild to profound hearing loss, he has had a chance to experience almost everything that the hearing industry has to offer. He currently utilizes cochlear implants in both ears. Read more of David’s musings at the Hearing Mojo blog.
Last modified: July 15, 2015