A Bold Perspective on Self-fitting Hearing Aids

An interview with biomedical engineer and aspiring business entrepreneur, Logan Grado

Originally from Iowa, Logan Grado is a PhD student in biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Logan is an example of how individuals outside the profession of audiology are bringing fresh and innovative ideas to clinicians and consumers. His work on self-fitting hearing aid interface systems—a software-driven app that allows the hearing aid wearer to adjust their own hearing aid using their smartphone—may eventually find their way into commercial devices. Read his brief interview with AP Editor, Brian Taylor below.

Please tell us about yourself, Logan.

LG: I am a 5th year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, concentrating on deep brain stimulation (DBS) for Parkinson’s disease. I’ve focused on developing machine learning algorithms to tune DBS devices in order to improve outcomes for patients.

How did you become interested in the hearing device industry?

LG: I only really became aware of the hearing device industry over the past few years, as my father has aged and has begun wearing hearing aids himself. As we’ve spoken more about his experiences, I’ve realized there’s potential to take some of the skills I’ve developed for DBS to help improve hearing device technology as well.

I know you were involved in developing an innovative technology through an I-Corps grant. What is I-Corp?

LG: The I-Corps program is a National Science Foundation (NSF) program designed to get scientists such as myself out of the lab and talking to actual people in our fields of study. Essentially, it’s a 7-week crash course in entrepreneurship. The end goal of the program is for participants to identify real, unmet needs in their field through more than 100 in-person interviews. After finishing the program, most participants return to their labs with new ideas, hopefully more relevant to solving real-world problems, while other participants start companies around a product idea generated and validated through the I-Corps program. Here is the link to NSF I-Corps program from those readers interested in learning more about it. Link: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/

What can you share with about the technology you developed?

LG: One of the biggest challenges we’ve identified with hearing devices through our I-Corps experience is the fitting process for hearing devices, especially considering the potential upcoming FDA de-regulation of hearing devices. As hearing devices become available over the counter, users likely will need a simple and effective way to fit their own device. Essentially, taking all the controls clinicians use to fit and adjust hearing aids, making them more user-friendly for the typical consumer and placing these controls in the hands of the person who wants to self-fit their hearing aids. In simple terms, we’re working to develop a self-fitting hearing aid with a simple and intuitive interface that anyone can use to fit their device, independent from a licensed professional.

I know that part of the grant process involved collecting data from consumers and hearing care professionals. What did you learn from both groups?

LG: From consumers, I learned that there’s a wide variety of needs and wants both from their hearing device, as well as their hearing care professional. Some consumers really enjoy going to the audiologist and value having an expert to help them tune their devices, while others want more autonomy and control over their devices. For health care providers, I learned that fitting hearing devices is only a small part of their jobs. There are so many other important services that audiologists provide, such as counseling, education, expectation management, etc.

How do you see your technology and other similar innovations changing the market for hearing devices and services?

LG: I envision that over the counter devices, and associated technologies (such as self-fitting hearing aids and other types of consumer audio, so-called hybrid devices that provide some amount of amplification) will greatly expand access to hearing care, as well as lower retail prices. Additionally, considering the groundswell of activity around artificial intelligence and machine learning occurring within all of healthcare, these newer devices will learn from and adapt to users to best serve them and provide the best user experience possible.

As an engineer with a background in biomedical science, what advice do you have for audiologists?

LG: For audiologists I’d say, don’t be too worried about over the counter (OTC) devices – they’re not going to replace you. Audiologists perform many vital functions that an OTC device cannot replicate, including personal interaction, educating wearers and loved ones about hearing loss and hearing devices, and helping consumers navigate a complex landscape. OTC devices have the potential to free up audiologists to focus on these more important activities, as well as to lower the barrier to entry, allowing audiologists to help more people. Based on dozens of I-Corps interviews with consumers, clinicians and advocates for persons with hearing loss, successfully treating hearing loss is often complex and requires more than simply buying and wearing a pair of hearing aids. I know I am probably preaching to the choir when I say that, but I’ve also interviewed a lot of audiologists and hearing aid dispensers who seem to believe that technology is the sole answer to helping people with hearing loss. In my opinion, technology is just a small part of the value that audiologists provide persons with hearing loss. Teaching people how to cope and to eventually improve their ability to hear is some combination of user friendly technology and impeccable counseling skills, which is a very human undertaking and cannot be duplicated by the best computers.

With your biomedical engineering background, any final thoughts to share with our readers?

LG: Three things come to mind. One, beef up your counseling skills. People that buy products on-line, at some point in time, are likely to need some type of service and support from an expert. Whatever you can do to help people maximize the device they choose to buy will be a service many will pay for. I’d think about offering a wider range of counseling services that help people navigate their choices of hearing devices, maximize the quality of their life with hearing loss and become more effecting communicators. Be a beacon for quality control and do it with a human face.

Two, stay abreast of technology advances both inside and outside the hearing aid industry. Of course, hearing aid manufacturers provide a continually improving device and eventually and they might offer self-fitting capability in the future. Likewise, pay attention to what consumer audio devices are bringing to the market, as I believe you will see more multi-tasking devices that have a primary feature, like amplification and several secondary functions, like language translation, biometrics, hands-free cell phone use, music streaming and Siri-like voice detection algorithms that allow you to surf the internet without using a keyboard. Also, I believe many of these hybrid devices will be less expensive than a pair of hearing aids.

Three, consistent with my second point, I would identify underserved populations that could potentially benefit from these emerging hybrid products. For example, I know from my I-Corps work there are several million people in the US, many under the age of 60, that have normal audiograms but struggle in noisy listening environments. Given the relatively high cost of a set of hearing aids and their situational hearing problems, most don’t consider themselves hearing aid wearers, and they seldom even seek out the service of an audiologist. I’d identify quality products that are true multi-taskers that could be marketed to those with normal audiograms but perceived hearing problems. Of course, from a business perspective these hybrid devices don’t carry the margins that traditional hearing aids do, but I think it would be a good way to build good will within the community and generates some revenue if done in an efficient way.

Thanks for your insights. It’s good to have a perspective from outside our profession.

LG: My pleasure.    
Logan Grado is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at grado@umn.edu.