Dr. Yi Hu’s passion for helping those who are hearing impaired is a personal one. “About 16 years ago, my grandpa started complaining about his hearing loss and tinnitus* conditions. I guess it was from that time I started to grow a passion to develop assistive hearing devices. Ever since I joined UWM in 2009, it has been a side project of mine to do research and development in hardware, firmware, and smartphone apps for sound amplification devices.” Over 466 million people have disabling hearing loss worldwide with fewer than 20% using amplification, highlighting the critical need for clinically-based hearing amplification options.
In 2018, Dr. Hu, UWM and Dr. Christina Runge, Medical College of Wisconsin decided to launch their own company to take on the task of helping the hearing impaired with the use of modern technology. The two have been collaborating for over a decade and realized they could make a large impact in this niche market. “As the dominant sound amplification device for hearing impaired listeners, hearing aids have a very low market penetration rate, and I believe the situation can be improved by making two changes: first, the price point should be made much more affordable; second, the consumers should be put in control,” said Dr. Hu about the market.
The two researchers collaborated on a custom-fit sound amplification device for smartphones that is as effective as a hearing aid. This device could potentially be sold over the counter and is worn in the ear— to transmit and optimize sounds for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
In the spring of 2021, AHT executed an exclusive license with the UWM Research Foundation and the Medical College of Wisconsin Office of Technology Development. They have received a total of $263,677 from the National Institutes of Health for a Phase I STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) grant to create the software for the amplification device.
“The startup process has been challenging and exciting, particularly when balancing with our academic rolls. Our startup and research activities go together nicely given that we are currently running a Phase 1 clinical trial for our personal sound amplification product, so there is a lot of synergy there,” states Dr. Runge.
*Tinnitus: when you experience ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears