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12 April, 2006 - 09:45 By Staff Reporter

New wireless hearing aid set for launch

A young Cambridge company could be within only two months of launching a product which it hopes could revolutionise life for the nine million people in the UK that are hard of hearing.A young Cambridge company could be within only two months of launching a product which it hopes could revolutionise life for the nine million people in the UK that are hard of hearing.

Auriplex, a start-up based at Cambridge Science Park, has employed wireless technology to develop a brand new kind of hearing aid – iEar – which it says addresses the myriad short-comings of existing technology.

The device will shortly enter clinical trials, a fast-tracked procedure required by UK regulators. And Auriplex is hopeful that if all goes to plan, the product could be on sale within two months.

If approval is granted the achievement will be made even more remarkable by the fact that the company has not yet received any venture capital.

The company is in the process of bulking up its operations in preparation for market launch and is now actively seeking Series A venture capital. The development of iEar has to date been financed by the award of a DTI R&D grant, investment from friends and family and “a couple of other sources.”

Acting CEO, Abol Chizari, who is himself hard of hearing, explained the company’s strategy: “We decided to devote all of our time, energy and resources to developing a production-ready device. We could possibly have raised a large sum of venture capital earlier in the process, but we wanted to concentrate 100 per cent on producing the iEar.

“We think this approach makes us a more attractive proposition to potential invest-ors and it has also had the effect of avoiding the effects of complacency that having a large sum of money in the bank can produce.”

Auriplex has a clear idea of the kind of investor it wants on board, with ‘added’ and ‘value’ the watchwords. Just as important as the cash injection is strategic input and a hands-on approach, according to Chizari.

In addition to the launch of concerted fund raising activities, the company is also in the process of recruiting a technical sales manager and sales executives.

Like most good ideas, Auriplex’s patented iEar represents a re-engineering of existing technology. The key is in how it is employed.

The starting point for Chizari, who started Auriplex two years ago, was to look at the physiology of hearing loss and the deficiencies of the aids currently on the market.

“In simple terms, when people lose their hearing, the brain becomes ‘lazy’ and can no longer pick out or ‘zoom in’ on a particular sound or voice. We take it for granted, but in any given situation, only about ten per cent of sound is important to us.

“The trouble with the hearing aids around at the moment is that they do nothing to differentiate between important and background sound – they just amplify everything, including the 90 per cent that people do not want or need to hear. This does very little to improve hearing.”

Auriplex’s iEar is a two-part system, consisting of a receiver/ear-piece and transmitter, which communicate using wireless FM technology. This implementation provides the user with the ability to concentrate on the all-important 10 per cent.

A mother taking her child to the play park can clip the transmitter to the clothing of her child and hear exactly what is being said within a range of 25 metres; someone travelling in a car with a group can position the transmitter in the middle of the car as close as possible to their companions; and someone watching TV can plug the set directly into the transmitter.

The settings can be tailored to suit a host of different situations. The amplification of the sound can be switched between normal and high on the transmitter, while to further minimise ambient noise there are also directional or surround sound settings.

The nature of the technology means that unlike conventional hearing aids, the user does not need visual cues, like lip reading to hear effectively. Neither is it prone to the loud whistling sounds that plague the average hearing aid.

Importantly, Chizari says, the technology can also be used in conjunction with an existing hearing aid, if desired.

“iEar can be used with existing hearing aids, to enhance their performance. This will give it the ability to zoom in on a wanted sound while retaining all the customised benefits of their current hearing aid,” he said.

“For a person with severe hearing loss, the improvement the iEar brings to their hearing ability is substantial and makes a huge difference to their lifestyle.”

The technology is not the smallest or most discrete on the market, but Chizari says that based on his company’s research, effectiveness is by far and away the most important requirement for a hearing aid.

And in an age where more and more people are wearing Bluetooth headsets for their mobile phones, the technology blends in very well.

Crucially, Auriplex says, the iEar will also be cheaper than the aids currently prescribed on the NHS. Part of the reason for this is that the product has been optimised for manufacturing from an early stage in its development.

Auriplex has collaborated closely with a number of Cambridge University departments, including Engineering and Materials and the Institute for Manufacturing.

The input of the latter in particular means that the manufacturing can be undertaken in the UK and not the Far East with its attendant risks to the company’s intellectual property.

Auriplex says further product innovation will be delivered in stages, for example making it smaller, but Chizari says this will be guided by feedback from customers.

Chizari said: “We are in essence a very practical company. The key for us was to get a product into the marketplace, to showcase our technology and establish a name for ourselves. We are still fairly small and young company, but with a product as close to market as ours, are in a very good position.

“We will concentrate on the UK market initially but hope to make a difference all over the world, not just in the developed world, but developing countries, too.”

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