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6 Startups Working on How to Fix Hearing Loss

We find ourselves spending less time in the pub these days. Not because we don’t like to drink anymore—on the contrary, we have more reasons than ever to imbibe—but because it has become virtually impossible to carry on a conversation without going hoarse and spitting profusely into the listener’s ear in the process. The noise level in some of these places can reach up to 90 decibels, about the equivalent of talking to a lawnmower without the smell of freshly cut grass (unless you’re doing shots of Jägermeister). Add in all of those heavy metal concerts of our wayward youth, and it’s surprising we can even hear a gunshot in Chicago on a holiday weekend.

Hearing loss affects about 15 percent of the adult population in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the National Institutes of Health on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. Nearly 30 million people in the United States alone could benefit from hearing aids but most just opt to scream “What!?!” louder instead, whether it’s because a pair of high-quality hearing aids can set you back $10,000 or they just assume it’s what happens when you get older (the popularity of Viagra illustrating where we have our priorities).

We’ve recently come across a number of startups that have developed high-tech hearing aids, sometimes called hearables in the consumer sector, novel medical therapies and even specialized messaging technology for the hearing impaired. We first covered this topic of high-tech hearing aids with a startup called Doppler Labs, which had produced a device called Here One, a wearable audio system designed to augment hearing by filtering out unwanted noises. It was one of the first low-cost hearing aids masquerading as a consumer electronics hearable. Unfortunately, the lights at the San Francisco startup just went dark this week, as the company called it quits after burning through about $51 million.

That means one less competitor for these six startups.

Everything’s Better with Lasers

Founded in 2005, EarLens out of Silicon Valley has raised about $198 million, including $118 million in June between venture capital and debt. The EarLens Hearing Aid Processor and Light Tip convert sound to light, eliminating the major source of whistling that troubles conventional hearing aids, according to the company. A lens sits on the eardrum while an external processor is worn on the outer ear with a light tip inserted into the ear canal. The processor converts sound to light, shooting a beam to the lens on the eardrum to activate a person’s natural hearing system.

The above clip demonstrates the bigger frequency range of the EarLens Hearing Aid over conventional devices.

Fishing for Sounds

Founded in 2013, Silicon Valley-based Eargo has raised $83.6 million, including a $45 million Series C last month. The Eargo Plus hearing aid is shaped like a fishing fly and is nearly the same size, suspended in the middle of the ear using soft medical grade silicone fibers. The so-called Flexi Fibers don’t plug the ear canal, allowing some ambient bass sounds to pass through, while the device mainly amplifies the mid and high sounds. The company says it’s like having an “internal equalizer set just right”.

Credit: Eargo

The rechargeable hearing aids, which retail for $1,999 a pair, also come with four sound profiles that work for most people with mild or moderate hearing loss. The wearer can change volume and sound profiles with a gentle double tap on the ear.

Hearables as a High-Tech Hearing Aid

Founded in 2007, Nuheara (ASX:NUH) is headquartered in Perth, Australia, and actually went public on the Australian Stock Exchange just a few months ago after raising about $9.65 million. Still, they’re worth a mention, because their wireless IQbuds sport a similar technology to that of Doppler Labs’ now-defunct Hear One. They even market the IQbuds, which retail for $299, as augmented hearing. What does that mean? As the company explains in a recent blog post: “IQbuds users can enjoy an enhanced experience at sporting events thanks to augmented hearing. Using IQbuds, one can mute ambient stadium noise, listen to a radio broadcast of the game, and hear the live action on the field all at once.”

As possible high-tech hearing aids, IQbuds allow users to mute background noise, while accentuating the speech frequencies of those seated nearby. The company is also promoting the device as a way to help those with auditory and concentration disorders such as autism. You can pick up a set on Amazon for $299.

Ditch the Device Altogether

Even the coolest-looking hearing aid or wearable is still an instrument that can break, malfunction or even be lost down the kitchen drain. Why not just cure hearing loss and ditch the device altogether? A couple of biotech startups are working to do just that.

Founded in 2015, Boston-based Decibel Therapeutics has collected $52 million in disclosed funding. Earlier this year, the startup announced an undisclosed investment by Google. Perhaps just as valuable, the tech giant will provide “significant technical expertise” to Decibel, particularly in the area of big data analytics. Decibel is attempting to do it all: research, drug discovery, genetics, imaging and modeling. 

Credit: Frequency Therapeutics

Its work is based on the research of its founders into inner ear pathology. Their research suggests that the dysfunctions related to the synapse (a junction between two nerve cells) in the ear may be linked to many of the major hearing disorders. Decibel’s scientific platform is focused on restoring the synapse.

Also founded in 2015 and headquartered just a few miles north of Boston in Woburn, Frequency Therapeutics raised $32 million in a Series A in April. The company is developing small molecule drugs that activate what are called progenitor cells, sort of like stem cells, within the body to restore healthy tissue. Its initial target is to regrow sensory cells in the inner ear to treat noise-induced hearing loss. Basically, the drugs under development would help dormant inner ear progenitor cells to multiply and create new hair cells. Frequency Therapeutics says drugs targeting progenitor cells may also help with skin disorders, muscle regeneration and gastrointestinal diseases.

Personalized Closed Captioning

Founded in 2014, Ava out of San Francisco has raised $1.8 million for its mobile captioning service for the hearing impaired. Ava is an app that allows a person with a hearing disability to engage in group conversations. Each person in the conversation has to have a smartphone and the app to participate. The user invites each person to join the conversation, and the comments scroll down the user’s smartphone screen nearly as fast as two teenagers texting each other on a Friday night, as seen below.

Credit: Ava

The company says Ava employs artificial intelligence, as it gets better at recognizing specific voices over time, increasing the accuracy of the translation. The app is free to download but only comes with five hours of group captioning per month. It will cost users $29.99 per month to unlock unlimited group convos.

Conclusion

Here we offered you a snapshot of what startups are doing to help people overcome hearing disabilities. We suspect the big manufacturers of hearing aids will continue to dominate in the short term, but with the passage this year of the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, the door is now open to companies like Doppler Labs and Nuheara to blur the divide between hearing aid and hearable, which comes with some pretty cool features and much lower price points. As far as finding a cure for hearing loss, the biotech companies we highlighted are both very early stage, but Google-backed Decibel Therapeutics certainly warrants watching. Captioning technology like that developed by Ava may have a role to play, but we wouldn’t expect it to be widely adopted, especially at $360 a year for an app. Let us know if you hear differently.

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