March 2019 The Canberra Times
For Dr Kate Lomas and Dr Liz Williams, understanding insect ears is the key to unlocking a billion-dollar industry. "We really see this as a dramatically improved treatment for profoundly deaf patients, and we're aiming to do this with our different sound processing technology," Williams, co-founder of Melbourne startup Hemideina, says.
Liz Williams and Kate Lomas, co-founders of Hemideina. The start-up is named after the scientific term for the Wellington tree weta insect.
Williams and Lomas recently closed a $1 million funding round from private investors and locked in an $800,000 commercialisation grant from the federal government to bring their Hera Implant to market. The technology is a smaller and less invasive alternative to the traditional cochlear hearing implant. The implant was developed from Lomas' research in biophysics and takes inspiration from her work on insect hearing systems, specifically the Wellington tree weta, which has extremely sensitive hearing. A tiny electrode is surgically inserted into the ear, then a small in-ear bud turns sound waves into electronic signals sent to the electrode in the inner-ear, which are then used to stimulate neurons in the cochlea and send sound information to the brain.
This "mechanical signal processing" is different from other options on the market, Lomas says, and its size means users don't have to remove or cover their hearing devices when swimming or playing sport. The duo, who came together to launch the startup after previously working together at the CSIRO, say Australia is a great place to begin a hearing-focused startup. The multi-channel cochlear implant was invented in Melbourne, and the pair say that history has helped them find support when commercialising the product. "It's the perfect hotbed of research and commercial experience. It is the place to be," Williams says. "One of the reasons we’ve been able to be successful was that really early on, we were able to take it to people [for support and review]," Lomas says.
The company says the hearing implants market is worth $1.8 billion annually. Global research suggests that more broadly, hearing tech for those with more mild types of hearing loss is also expected to grow. The number of units using wireless technologies such as bluetooth are also expected to increase. Statista estimates that 450,000 units of this type of tech was sold in 2016, with this number expected to hit 9.8 million by next year.
Hemideina is aimed as a treatment for deaf patients, but the startup is by no means alone in the auditory technology space. Smart headphones producers are developing consumer products aimed at helping those with mild hearing loss. Williams says while these startups are very different from projects such as Hemideina, what they have in common is the quest to make auditory devices "more personalised" and focused on the specific needs of users.
Chief executive of smart headphones brand Nuheara Justin Miller agrees that personalisation is a key trend in the space. "We’re gone down the path of very deep personalisation and embedding that on your devices," he says. ASX-listed Nuheara has launched a range of headphones that transmit sound according to the preferences of users and offers products such as the IQBoost, designed to help those with mild hearing loss.
Nuheara chief executive Justin Miller: "We’re creating the market we’re selling into – this hasn't existed before."
The company has been launching its products into the US market, where the hearing tech space is rapidly changing ahead of a Food and Drug Administration plan to allow hearing assistance devices to be sold over the counter by 2020. Miller says there's a global appetite for personalised, wireless sound products but Nuheara's task so far has been to educate consumers about headphone products that have their hearing health in mind. "We’re creating the market we’re selling into – this hasn't existed before."
Nuheara made $1.4 million in revenue in the six months to December 2018, though it operated at a loss of more than $4 million over that period. Miller says the long-term sales opportunities for this type of technology will continue as users turn away from screens and towards sound. "We’re getting used to voice and response, with smart speakers and those sorts of things," he says. "The ear is going to get bigger.”