February / March 2011 Volume 9 Number 1

A Breakthrough in Hearing Aid Technology?

Experts told Garth Gobeli that he would need to spend $5,400 on top-of-the-line hearing aids to address his age-related hearing loss, and even then, because of the limited performance of conventional hearing aids, he wouldn’t hear well.  Gobeli, a retired physicist with 14 patents and decades of experience at Bell Labs and Sandia National Laboratories, looked at the audiogram and knew he could create a device that would mirror the slope of the graph.

The result is the EarPOD, a new kind of hearing device that performs better than the best conventional hearing aid and can be sold for about $320.

“It’s turned into an epic,” says Gobeli.

He pulls out a graph illustrating familiar sounds by decibel and frequency. A dripping sink is about 20 dB and 250 Hz, while an airplane is about 120 dB and 4,000 Hz. The shape of normal speech, when diagrammed, takes an elongated shape known as the “speech banana” and is roughly 20 dB by 125 to 8,000 Hz.

A good ear can hear from 30 Hz to about 20,000 Hz. Conventional hearing aids have a frequency range of 250 to 2,000 Hz; the best peak around 3,500 to 4,000 Hz, but the amplification for both falls off at higher frequencies. The farthest end of the speech banana is where sibilants—the s, f and th sounds—reside, between 3,000 and 8,000 Hz. So a wearer can hear a ring tone or vacuum cleaner, but words like “sort,” “fort,” and “thwart” all sound alike.
The EarPOD can reach at least 10,000 Hz, amplifying the region that includes sibilants.

Gobeli’s invention is straightforward. A commercially available earbud set with in-the-ear micro-speakers doesn’t require custom fitting, as many conventional hearing aids do. Each ear has its own easily manipulated control knob to adjust volume. (Steve Mills, an electrical engineer and co-worker, helped design the electronic system.) The system, with its superior directionality detection, improves understanding of speech, even in a crowd.

“You can hear everything, and you have complete control,” Gobeli says, pulling the prototype he uses from a pocket. “If I’m in a lecture or a movie, I can dial it up easily to hear people on the screen or at the lectern.”

The input microphones are in a small case worn on a lanyard around the neck or clipped in a pocket, and they work well under clothing; the separation between microphones and speakers reduces feedback problems.
Conventional hearing aids, with the microphone and output transducer in the same housing, are vulnerable to feedback squeal for even modest gains. Using an auxiliary port, the EarPOD can be connected to a cell phone to provide hands-free operation.

As friends and acquaintances (and the occasional journalist) try the device, the reaction is always the same, Gobeli says. “They turn it on, look up, smile, and say, ‘I can hear everything.’ Then they ask when they can buy one.” The most eager testers already wear hearing aids.

For now, Gobeli has focused on presbyacusis, which is sensioneural or age-related hearing loss. It affects about 31 million people in the United States, but just 7 million own or use hearing aids, either because they can’t afford them or they’re dissatisfied with the hearing aids they’ve tried. 

The eight major hearing-aid manufacturers, in catering to vanity, have compromised on performance, Gobeli says. Their major selling point is small size, some so minute they hide inside the ear.

Gobeli sells a different kind of vanity: His device looks like an MP3 player.

“Times have changed. The sight of earbuds is no longer unusual or a badge of old age,” he says. And many potential users, like Gobeli himself, don’t care what the device looks like—they simply want to hear.
“Manufacturers are doing the best they can with the constraints they have.”

To date, it’s not possible to miniaturize Gobeli’s technology because of the battery power required. The EarPOD uses a 3.7-volt, rechargeable Li-lon battery, which will operate 40 to 50 hours on one charge and is guaranteed for 600 charge-discharge cycles. Attempts to shrink its size would reduce its effectiveness.

Last year EarPOD LLC, the company founded by Gobeli and his son Stephen, became a client of Technology Ventures Corp. “The uniqueness of the device was appealing,” says Lee Trussell, TVC’s director of entrepreneurial training, “and it could be priced to be attractive and affordable to a large population.” The cheapest listening devices, he explained, can be sold at $19.95 “and they probably amplify sound, but not in the way the EarPOD does. We have a device that’s beyond just amplification.”

It’s not often that TVC sees the kinds of credentials of the two Gobelis. For 14 years Garth was division supervisor and department manager of Sandia’s Laser Optics Group in Albuquerque and founder of the Hanseatic Group, a financial services company.

Stephen, who is general manager of Alcatel-Lucent’s Managed Network Solutions business, has more than 25 years’ experience in sales, business and executive management in such companies as Nortel Networks, Avaya, CommScope, Samsung and Flextronics International.

TVC chose EarPOD to participate in its annual Equity Capital Symposium, which brings investors from across the globe to hear about companies commercializing new technologies. The device was well received, Trussell says, but at the time the Gobelis had only a rudimentary model and not a prototype.

With the research and development completed, the company needs capital primarily to manufacture and market. “I’ve been encouraged by some venture capitalists to price it quite a bit higher,” Gobeli says. “But when people hear about it, I want them to reach for their wallets, not go home and think about it. It’s a very fair price with a good gross margin even at $300.”

According to its business plan, EarPOD intends to target the elderly in general and the 45-to-65 age group in particular. As life expectancy rises, the elderly population is growing dramatically. The 45-to-65 pool is about 14 million. Projections indicate that in the next 10 years the hard-of-hearing people in this segment will increase by 3.2 percent a year—possibly more, considering the widespread use of iPods and MP3 players. Europe, with 1.6 times the hearing-deficient population as the United States, represents another sizable market.

In the future, Gobeli anticipates developing devices for hearing loss caused by firearm noise, rock concerts, or disease. The current prototype is a one-size-fits-all; these types of hearing loss would require an individual approach, which would be more expensive.

“We’re working right now to raise $250,000 to build 3,000 to 4,000 units,” says Trussell. “Then we can stir up the market. We think it’s there. If we validate the market, we can go after bigger funding.”

Sherry Robinson is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.