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Orka’s Sonic Revolution: How Xinke Liu is Changing the Future of Hearing

At the core of Orka's mission is a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by individuals with hearing loss and a commitment to providing innovative solutions that enhance their quality of life.
Xinke Orka

Xinke Liu, Chief Communications Officer and co-founder of Orka Labs.

In the rapidly advancing world of hearing technology, Xinke Liu, Chief Communications Officer and co-founder of Orka, and her company stand out. Having been diagnosed with hearing loss at age 15, Xinke's journey from hearing aids to cochlear implants—and ultimately to her involvement in Orka hearing aids—has been fueled by her passion for innovative personalized solutions. Her goal is to bring the power of hearing intervention to the masses.

Orka Labs, headquartered in Chicago, is an end-to-end hearing aid manufacturer that designs and manufactures its products and then sells them directly to consumers. The company reportedly provides complete remote hearing care with its in-house telecare team of hearing specialists to improve accessibility and take the stress out of the hearing aid buying and onboarding experience.

But the new device is not positioned as an over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid. With funding from Tencent and Sequoia Capital, Orka Health plans to take on the so-called “Big-5” global hearing aid manufacturers with a high-tech prescription hearing aid that uses a general chip platform—or the same kinds of chips you find in smartphones and tablets instead of the specialized proprietary chips employed by the major hearing aid brands. They believe this will enable them to incorporation new AI technology along with greater flexibility and shorter time between tech updates. The tradeoff, for now anyway, is a battery life of about 12 hours per charge versus 16-24 hours for traditional hearing aids.

Orka Hearing Aids

Orka One, is an FDA cleared prescription hearing aid offered for $1180 per pair. Unlike most brand-name hearing aids, it employs a general chip platform and offers rechargeablility, a unique DeNoise technology, Bluetooth connectivity, and is designed for people with mild to moderately severe hearing losses.

The company has made some impressive headway. Their first product, Orka One, is an FDA cleared receiver-in-canal (RIC) rechargeable hearing aid offered for $1180 per pair that was honored with the CES 2021 Innovation Product Award for its proprietary AI DeNoise technology and Bluetooth 5.0. These devices are designed for mild to moderately severe hearing loss and come with a 45 day trial period and a 2-year warranty. However, with Orka Two in the wings, Orka One has recently been discontinued.

In addition to their cutting-edge devices, Orka's business model focuses on providing their customers with comprehensive support and ongoing assistance. With a strong emphasis on personalized support and innovative solutions, Orka wants to address the diverse needs of individuals with hearing loss.

In the following interview, Xinke offers insights into her personal journey, the unique approach of Orka, and her vision for the company's future.

1. How did your hearing loss initially affect your day-to-day life, and how has it changed since you received the cochlear implant?

Growing up in China during the prosperous 2000s, my parents were busy building their businesses, and my hearing loss went unnoticed, mistaken for simple attention issues. It became clear that something was wrong when I couldn’t hear sounds in my iPod’s left earbud and was unaware of certain school assignments and exam announcements. To hide my hearing loss, I mastered the art of guiding conversations toward familiar topics, asking for repetitions, or pretending to understand.

Over time, my close friends noticed my struggles; one even joked that my nodding and saying yes meant I was faking understanding. In high school, I relied on phonetic symbols for English and Pinyin for Chinese as creative ways to overcome my limitations. However, I didn’t realize I spoke with a deaf accent.

After getting my first cochlear implant, I discovered a world filled with new sounds, from taxi TV ads to birds chirping. Enthusiastic about my newfound hearing, I began using a Bluetooth headset to listen to podcasts and audiobooks in both Chinese and English. This audio immersion proved invaluable in refining my pronunciation in both languages, helping me overcome my deaf accent.

As a fun fact, my former deaf accent often sparked curiosity. In the United States, people would think I was a foreigner learning the language, whereas, in China, even taxi drivers would ask if I was a foreigner learning Chinese. Through these experiences, I’ve learned to appreciate the progress I’ve made in overcoming the challenges of hearing loss and language.

2. Could you share more about your experiences in the United States as a student with hearing loss? How did you navigate communication challenges?

I first encountered accessibility services in the dormitory application during my freshman year of undergraduate studies. As an international student, I was unfamiliar with the concept and unsure how it could help me. I later understood that such services existed in schools, but budget constraints often meant that students like me needed to actively and persistently seek help, making it challenging to find adequate support.

Navigating healthcare in the United States was another obstacle, as I tried to understand the referral system. In China, I’d simply go to the hospital and register when feeling unwell. In the US, waiting for a doctor’s referral turned into a frustrating waiting game. Thankfully, a dedicated audiologist helped me navigate the system, connecting me with hospitals and doctors and guiding me on using my insurance. I’ll be forever grateful for her assistance.

In daily life, I mastered the art of concealing my hearing loss with clever strategies. When ordering an omelet, I asked for all available ingredients to avoid back-and-forth questions, especially when chefs wore masks. While boarding a plane, I blended in with the last group called to hide my difficulty hearing announcements.

As a foreigner and a person with hearing loss, communication challenges seemed overwhelming. I often attributed miscomprehensions to being new to the language, when in reality, my hearing loss was the main issue.

Looking back on those mentally exhausting times, if I could relive those days, I’d lessen the burden on myself and seek help and support more openly as a student with hearing loss.

3. It seems like your family's attitude towards your hearing loss positively influenced your perspective. Can you talk more about that?

My parents’ unintentional ignorance—mostly resulting from limited access to information— gave me the freedom to pursue my goals without constraint. It also prevented their concern from manifesting as stress, anxiety, or limitations in my life.

For instance, when I expressed my interest in studying in the United States, my parents did not worry that my hearing loss might make life overseas more challenging. They were even unaware of the listening section in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam but encouraged me to take it anyway. As expected, I faced difficulties with the listening section but performed exceptionally well in other parts, ultimately achieving a high overall score.

Ineffective product branding and education also postponed my adoption of cochlear implants. During a visit to Beijing for an ENT appointment, we encountered an unexpected situation following our consultation. A group of aggressive cochlear implant salespeople cornered us in the hallway outside the doctor's office, insistently promoting their surgeries. Instead of inspiring confidence, their forceful behavior heightened my skepticism about cochlear implants and further discouraged my family from considering such uncertain options.

For parents of deaf children who might be worrying about whether they are putting in enough effort, I would say that it’s vital to foster a supportive and optimistic environment that encourages your child to pursue their interests and develop a sense of resilience. This environment will often do more for the child’s growth and well-being than solely concentrating on their hearing loss and its related challenges.

4. Given your experience, what advice would you give to someone currently struggling with hearing loss?

Act early. Hearing loss is easy to procrastinate on, since there isn't any pain involved—it’s easy to convince yourself you can manage without intervention. Start using hearing aids as soon as possible to regain sound clarity and stay connected to the world. If a cochlear implant is needed, go for it. Acting now can significantly improve communication and boost your quality of life. Don't put it off; act now to make the most of your hearing journey.

It’s crucial not to let perfectionism hold you back. When I first experienced hearing loss in 2008, some people casually mentioned that I could wait for cutting-edge solutions like regenerative techniques for hair cells, as they had heard about its potential. However, 15 years have passed, and we’re now in 2023, but significant progress in regenerative techniques remains unseen. It’s important to understand that bringing groundbreaking technologies to practical use—especially in the medical field—can take time.

Don’t let the prospect of future developments delay your decision to act. You don’t need the perfect product or technology; what matters most is taking action to regain your hearing, as it can significantly improve your overall quality of life.

5. You mentioned sometimes using your "CI" identity to your advantage in certain situations. How do you feel about the notion of hearing loss as an identity versus a medical condition?

First and foremost, I want to emphasize that joking about my CI identity doesn't solve the underlying problem, and I don't want people to get the wrong idea. Before getting my cochlear implant, my hearing loss was undoubtedly a medical condition that caused me to struggle.

Now, with the help of my CI, my hearing loss has become more of a distinct aspect of my identity. I have come to terms with it and can incorporate it into my lifestyle, primarily because I'm no longer burdened by the same pressures. But this doesn't mean we should downplay hearing loss as a medical condition.

Admittedly, I do sometimes exploit my CI identity for "advantage" or "convenience." For instance, I might take my CI off at the office, during lengthy conversations, or to enjoy some blissful, noise-free sleep on airplanes or trains. Nonetheless, it's important to understand that each one of you with hearing loss and a CI has a unique experience, and being considerate of your individual needs is essential. Remember, your journey is your own, and how you cope with your hearing loss is specific to you.

6. Can you share more about the reactions you have encountered from people when they discover you use a cochlear implant?

Some individuals express amazement and say, "You have a cochlear implant? But you hear so clearly!"Others become intrigued about the cause of my hearing loss during childhood. They are often astonished when I tell them I'm not exactly sure and wonder how I could not know such a significant detail.

Some people, displaying curiosity about the differences between cochlear implants and hearing aids, ask why I don't use Orka's hearing aid products instead.

When engaging in water sports, I usually remove my cochlear implant as I find waterproof cases to be cumbersome. In these situations, people enthusiastically suggest speaking louder so I can hear them better, only to realize that, no matter how loudly they shout, I still can't hear without my implant.

Some individuals hesitate to inquire further, worrying that it's a sensitive subject.

Most people perceive cochlear implants as futuristic and far removed from everyday life—something both intriguing and abstract.

7. You mentioned that awareness of hearing loss is low in China. What kind of efforts would you like to see to increase understanding and acceptance of hearing loss there?

Low hearing loss awareness is not a regional issue, but rather a structural one. As a bilingual and deaf individual, I often joke that I can confirm to friends in both China and the United States that hearing aids are equally expensive.

The low adoption rate of hearing aids globally reveals that it’s a universal issue, not solely in China. Many users cannot access the products they need due to barriers such as pricing and the availability of professional support. In the United States, there is a concern about increased marketization and less regulation for over-the-counter (OTC) products potentially posing risks to consumers. Meanwhile, in China, despite having access to the same manufacturers and products, users face even fewer professional audiology services, resulting in high-priced products without the necessary support.

That’s why we advocated for measures like the OTC Hearing Aid Act, even though our product, Orka Two, is not self-fit yet. The Act challenges the global monopoly, allowing newcomers to the market and providing customers with more choices. By increasing hearing aid accessibility and awareness in the United States and other countries, we can expect these positive developments to influence China, as well. Greater understanding and acceptance of hearing loss in China would stem from a combination of such global initiatives, raising awareness, and providing accessible professional services.

8. Can you talk about the support system you have found among people with hearing loss? How has connecting with others in similar circumstances influenced your journey?

At first, I didn’t know anyone with hearing loss. It was during my recovery from cochlear implant surgery in 2015 when I started searching online for more information. Back then, I was limited to Chinese websites and joined a group chat dedicated to hearing loss.

To my surprise, most members were worried parents of children with hearing loss. They talked about their children’s challenges, even though they hadn’t gone through hearing loss themselves. They sought advice from me, hoping that my unique journey—a girl attending college in the hearing world and even studying abroad—could shed light on their children’s potential paths.

Connecting with them made me realize that the challenges of hearing loss are even harder due to limited exposure to others with similar experiences and difficulties accessing information. At times, it was both eye-opening and overwhelming.

That’s why I enjoy visiting the hearing aid forum now,  as it allows me to witness the daily lives of others who share my experiences, giving me the sense of connection and understanding I need.

9. How has your cochlear implant affected your relationship with music or other sounds that you enjoy?

I'm not sure where my ability to appreciate music falls short compared to those with normal hearing, so I can only use a few examples to pinpoint my situation. One time, we were listening to a song by Jay Chou, and I said, "Hey, this is a remake," yet my friend couldn't tell. However, my younger brother can detect more subtle sounds, such as a car in neutral gear.

I can clearly differentiate between instruments like trumpet and violin, a skill that Charles Limb's TED Talk [at 8:32] shows most cochlear implant users find challenging. However, I struggle with accurately perceiving pitch and discerning minor changes within one semitone, also demonstrated [at 6:52] in the talk using a MIDI arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude.

When I first received my cochlear implant, it felt as though music had evolved from 2D to immersive surround sound – a fascinating, though not entirely accurate, analogy. The moment I experienced music with distinct left and right audio channels was nothing short of astonishing. Upgrading to a Bluetooth direct connection enabled me to transmit music directly, allowing me to appreciate even more nuances and intricacies in the sound.

10. How do you handle situations where people are insensitive or ignorant about hearing loss and cochlear implants?

I used to spend so much time arguing with people who simply didn't understand hearing loss and cochlear implants. Now I understand that their lack of knowledge often stems from limited access to information. With this in mind, I’ve chosen to focus on educating and raising awareness.

Now, I avoid exhausting debates and instead provide clear, accurate information and share personal experiences to dispel misconceptions and promote understanding. I believe that through spreading knowledge and showing empathy, we can tackle ignorance related to hearing loss and create a supportive, inclusive society.

Emphasizing education and understanding helps empower individuals and families affected by hearing loss, enabling them to advocate for themselves and access the resources they need to confidently navigate their unique challenges.

11. Tell me how your experience with hearing loss led you to co-founding Orka, and how your experiences inform your work with the company.

My personal battle with hearing loss sparked the idea to create Orka, with a mission to better the lives of those going through similar difficulties.

At Orka, we aim to design high-quality and easy-to-use hearing aids. We achieve this by deeply understanding users’ needs and utilizing a general chip platform, which offers flexibility and customization, even though it demands additional research and development.

Based on my firsthand experience with hearing loss, I truly appreciate the importance of ongoing and personalized support. Our caring team of audiologists at Orka provides tailored assistance, helping customers adjust to, and make the most of, their hearing aids every step of the way.

For me, the journey of co-founding Orka has been a turning point, transforming past challenges into opportunities for growth and making a positive difference in the hearing aid industry.

Orka-produced video that shows the unboxing of Orka One Bluetooth hearing aids. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.

12. What makes Orka unique? Where do you see the company in the next 5 years?

Orka is unique because we understand that hearing aids alone don’t suffice. Our personalized approach combines advanced devices with expert assistance, tailoring solutions to each user’s lifestyle. In sessions, we encourage users to involve family and friends, as their insights about the user’s life can be valuable, fostering a support system that enhances the overall experience.

In the next 5 years, we aim to:

  • Develop ultra-small, high-performance hearing aids using improved general chip technology.

  • Utilize AR/VR for virtual fitting rooms and AI-driven tools for precise adjustments.

  • Address holistic wellness, including tinnitus, mental health, and fall prevention.

Partner with big-box retailers to expand our product and service reach.

Abram Bailey Aud

Founder and President

Dr. Bailey is a leading expert on consumer technology in the audiology industry. He is a staunch advocate for patient-centered hearing care and audiological best practices, and welcomes any technological innovation that improves access to quality hearing outcomes. Dr. Bailey holds an Au.D. from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Karl

Editor in Chief

Karl Strom is the editor-in-chief of HearingTracker. He was a founding editor of The Hearing Review and has covered the hearing aid industry for over 30 years.