In common practice, hearing aid users play a small role in selecting the signal processing parameter values of their device. This means, when it comes to choosing the most comfortable and functional range of loudness and tone of sound for their hearing aids, users don’t often have as much control as they might prefer.
Ear Machine LLC proposed a data-driven method to empower hearing-impaired users to select their desired parameter values by adjusting two controllers that are displayed on a smartphone app that simulates hearing aids. Andrew Sabin, Ph.D., acted as the principal investigator, of a dedicated team of innovative hearing scientists, with a goal to create novel and accessible hearing healthcare. With their sights set on the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), they submitted a Fast-Track application in order to have access to their Phase II funding more quickly after completing the Phase I project period.
Dr. Roger Miller, SBIR Program Officer for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders established a line of communication with the principal investigator early on. He found their approach intriguing because although many companies are looking at hearing aid design and new features to implemented, this idea had a unique measure of precision. “They were very thoughtful in how to structure things going into Phase I, which properly informed their Phase II. It was a difficult challenge, but their approach was reasonable, and we were interested to see where this could go,” Miller says. Giving a principal investigator the opportunity to explore their ideas and see what works is one of the extraordinary opportunities that SBIR Program Officers can offer to the scientific community.
In describing subtle, overlooked ways a small business can innovate, Dr. Miller says, “Small and nimble teams can pinpoint their niche, crawl into a small space, and open it up for everyone else. Even a small award to the right group will open doors that don’t exist for a larger company.” The team at Ear Machine continued to think outside the box, as they used iTunes as a vehicle to use what they learned in their research and make it available to all audio users, not just hearing aid users. In creating the EarMachine app during their Phase I project period, they were able to leverage existing platforms to prove the concept of your algorithm, which Dr. Miller thought was “really smart.”
The official product that would finally come forward are the Hearphones , dubbed as “conversation-enhancing headphones”, which contain directional microphones that can be used to focus in on or amplify specific sounds, while actively canceling out background distractions. EarMachine was acquired by Bose in 2016, and these earbuds can now be purchased on Amazon.
When it comes to advice for aspiring small businesses looking to compete for NIH SBIR/STTR funding, Dr. Roger Miller doesn’t have a secret sauce but does offer two ingredients--awareness and modernization. He says potential applicants should use the NIH Project RePORTER to see what has been funded in the past, and when it comes to innovation, “Focus on what your technology does that is not available in the marketplace. If reviewers can’t determine what sets you apart quickly, then your innovation may not be apparent at all.”
Information for this success story was gathered through an interview with Dr. Roger Miller, SBIR Program Officer for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, that was conducted by Patricia Swayne, the NIH SBIR/STTR Communications Coordinator.