A California startup company, iHear Medical Inc., is promising to break the $200 price barrier for programmable hearing aids with its new, invisible iHear HD hearing device.
The early-bird $199 price includes not only the new digital hearing aid, but also an iHear Test kit that enables customers to self-administer hearing tests and program the hearing aids to their personal hearing profiles.
With pre-orders now at www.igg.me/at/ihearmedical for online shipments that will start in August, iHear Medical is also promising to donate one of its hearing aids for every hearing aid it sells, “to give the gift of hearing to an economically disadvantaged person.” The company has set a goal to donate 1,000 hearing aids through its Hearing for All Foundation in its first 60 days of shipments.
The incredibly low price point might be cause for skepticism, were it not for the track record of the company’s founder, Adnan Shennib, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Shennib’s previous company, InSound Medical, developed high-end, invisible, extended-wear Lyric hearing aids that cost several thousand dollars each.
In 2010, Shennib sold InSound Medical to Sonova Group for $169 million. He then set to work on his idea for iHear Medical to sell low-cost, high-quality hearing aids to the huge population of consumers who currently can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars for hearing assistance.
Shennib points to the fact that 40 percent of American consumers with hearing loss are economically disadvantaged and simply cannot afford the high price of most digital programmable hearing aids. The company identifies what it says is the cause of this gap—a hearing aid industry that hasn’t innovated in ways enabling more affordable solutions:
The industry is currently dominated by 6 major players who control over 90% of the market. The industry has operated in the “old business” model of high-cost high-margin service which has not served consumers well, as evidenced by the fact only 20% of people with hearing loss have a solution, compared to over 95% of people with vision problems who have corrective solutions. We are about to challenge and lead an industry that refuses to change. The iHear products are expected to create a new paradigm in hearing health care, by removing the major barriers to hearing aid acquisition.
By developing what it says is the “first web-enabled hearing aid system,” iHear Medical plans to upend the current distribution system in which professional audiologists perform the patient testing and sell their services along with high-end hearing aids at premium prices. In other words, selling directly to the consumer over the Internet will dramatically reduce costs.
There have been other high-quality user-programmable hearing aids available on the Internet—we have written about America Hears extensively in the past—but none has featured a user-administered hearing test, and all are priced at least four-to-five times higher than the iHear HD hearing aids.
Key to combining miniaturization with high-quality hearing aid performance will be new technologies, and iHear Medical says it is has already filed for 18 patents on innovations critical to delivering its system. No doubt Shennib and his team are drawing on their previous experience developing the Lyric hearing aid, which sat deep within the ear canal for complete invisibility through new miniaturization and extended wear technologies.
The iHear HD device will integrate a microphone and receiver (speaker) in a bean-sized unit that sits within the ear canal. A compact, easily replaceable custom battery unit sold by iHear Medical provides enough power for about a week of daily use.
In addition to taking the cost out of manufacturing and providing high-quality digital hearing technology at a new, low price threshold, iHear Medical will need to deliver another hearing-industry first—an accurate, self-administered hearing test that will actually enable customers to program their hearing aids at home.
While the company has not yet released technical details on its iHear Test kit, it has laid out a “simple, one-two-three process” by which consumers will acquire and program their iHear HD hearing aids:
1. First, the iHear Test Kit is shipped to the customer, who plugs it into a personal computer, downloads software from iHear Medical, connects to the iHear cloud-based platform, and conducts a personal hearing test online
2. Next, the iHear HD hearing device is shipped to the customer for an individualized fitting, using the Kit to program the device based on the personal hearing test result stored in iHear Medical’s online database.
3. The customer can further tune the programming of the hearing aid, managing the entire fitting process with the personal computer.
In its list of frequently asked questions and answers, iHear Medical explains that users will be able to self-administer two tests for free, with subsequent tests costing $9 each. The user’s test information will be stored in iHear Medical’s online database, and the company will have audiologists and other experts on staff available online and on the phone to help customers use the kit to custom-program their hearing aids.
The company is currently awaiting approval of the 510K application it filed in 2013 with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell the iHear Test product. Users will have to sign a waiver form testifying that they have either had their hearing checked by a medical professional or are skipping a medical evaluation while acknowledging they are aware that the FDA strongly recommends that anyone who has trouble hearing and wants to acquire a hearing aid should seek medical advice first. The FDA requires the medical waiver for direct-to-consumer sales of hearing aids bypassing audiologists, licensed hearing aid dispensers, or other medical professionals.
If iHear Medical can meet its cost and performance targets, it has the potential to be a disruptive force in the hearing aid industry. The current wave of digital personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), which are not custom programmed to the user’s hearing profile and which don’t require a medical waiver, have already upset the leading hearing aid manufacturers by providing amplification at much lower prices than custom-programmed hearing aids. And the higher function programmable iHear HD hearing aid is undercutting the prices charged by many of the higher-quality PSAP makers.
To learn more and/or to pre-order at the introductory prices, visit iHear Medical’s IndieGoGo campaign at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/invisible-hearing-device-by-ihear.