Phonak Moves Forward with Innovation
Industry Insider | April 2015 Hearing Review
An interview with Phonak Group VP Martin Grieder and VP of Product Marketing Thomas Lang.
Martin Grieder, the new Group Vice President of Phonak, isn’t the typical hearing industry executive who has come out of the optical, medical/electronic device, or pharmaceutical industry. Grieder spent 20 years with food and beverage giant Nestlé, with the last decade in the company’s Nespresso division that has had its luxury line of espresso makers and coffee capsules promoted by celebrities like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and John Malkovich.
Joining Phonak last August, Grieder has already gained a unique perspective on the industry. The Hearing Review caught up with him and Phonak’s Vice President of Product Marketing, Thomas Lang, a long-time and well-respected expert in the industry, for some of their perspectives.
HR: So, what attracted you to Phonak and our industry?
Grieder: I would say there were primarily three things that really got my attention about this industry and Phonak. The first are the numbers: the aging Baby Boomers and the senior population, as well as the prospects for this industry in general. Second, when you look at Phonak and its leadership position within the industry, as well as its reputation, it has an obvious capacity for innovation. So, you’re starting with a very strong base, and there are many opportunities for growth and innovation.
And this leads me to the third point: the company’s people. I’ve never experienced the level of constructiveness and openness that you find at Phonak—the kind of informal way of dealing with one another and doing business. This is a real benefit in a corporate culture. And I think that’s one of the key factors that enable Phonak to be such an innovative company. It’s the culture and the mindset, and here at Phonak, people really live it.
HR: Has anything surprised you about your new job at Phonak or the industry?
Grieder: It’s definitely clear that this is an industry that hinges on technology and innovation. In the time I’ve been with Phonak, I’m impressed with the fact that they’re open to trying out-of-the-box things. Typically, a market leader is cautious with disruptive innovation; what most market leaders are really shooting for is stability. At Phonak, there are many new ideas and innovations that are discussed, and this speaks again to the type of open culture the company has.
Technology and innovative ideas are what really drive me and excite me, and that’s certainly the reason why I now feel so comfortable with Phonak.
In terms of the overall industry, I was impressed with how adjacent technologies have had such a huge impact on moving the industry forward. If you’re a company that wants to thrive in this industry—and I think this is illustrated by Phonak—you need to be well connected to these adjacent technologies and embrace technological change.
Phonak derives 80% of its sales from products launched less than 2 years ago. What other industries have that? So, thanks to Tom and his team—I call them The Innovation Launch Machine—I’ve found myself in a uniquely innovative and fast-moving technologically oriented company.
Lang: We have so many interesting products—from our new Venture platform to our new streamer and Roger technology. We’ve also recently acquired Comfort Audio. There are so many opportunities to leverage our solutions and so many consumers who need them. So it’s an amazing opportunity for all of us at Phonak, and it really is a great time when we can all change the world of hearing care—manufacturers and hearing care professionals.
HR: Can you tell us about your latest product technology, Venture, and how you see it improving hearing aid performance?
Grieder: At EUHA and also in the US market, we launched the new Venture platform, which is really at the heart of everything we’ll be doing in the next couple of years. The Venture platform is amazing in the sense that it doubles the processing power while at the same time reduces the power consumption by 30%. This has been music to the ears of our engineers who have been able to utilize these strengths by developing some fantastic features.
One of these that really stands out is the AutoSense operating system, which handles the automatic operation of the hearing aid and now contains seven different programs—three of which are new. The seven programs and the processing power of the platform allows us to blend all the programs seamlessly. In essence, this creates over 200 different and multiple hearing experiences for the hearing aid user. And this all happens seamlessly without the user ever noticing that it’s switching from one blended program to the other.
Another highlight is EasyCall. We made a conscious decision to develop a solution that connects our hearing aids to all Bluetooth-enabled phones. When we look at the facts, it is obvious: over 50% of our core consumers—meaning ages 60-plus—do not even own a smartphone. And, of those who own a smartphone, only 20% own an iPhone.
So we felt that, at this point in time, it’s much more important to address a broader market and to launch something that can work with any Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.
Lang: The Audéo Venture, or Audéo V, product line is key to our recent success. This RIC product family consists of four models, ranging from the small size 10A device that is fully wireless, all the way to size 13 that contains a telecoil and volume control. In between, we have two models that are size 312 devices, one with and one without a telecoil. These are all wireless—even the size 10, which also includes a push button.
This is the kind of learning that we made from the Audéo Quest launch, adding these options with the telecoil. I think the more choice we are able to give our customers, the better we can fulfill the end users’ needs. So there are four models in four price levels, all the way from Premium to Essential with a full range of solutions.
Venture uses the same receivers—standard, power, and super power plus—that we have used in the past, which keeps the logistics very easy for dispensing professionals. The Super Power Plus that was previously only compatible with the Naida RIC is now compatible with the Audéo V RICs, so it affords more power than in the past.
At the core of the engine, as Martin said, is the Venture digital processor, which has an amazing input dynamic range of 101 dB—the highest in the industry. As a reference, the hi-fi standard asks for 80 dB, and CDs run at 96 dB. So this is very valuable for enhanced music listening.
Let’s face it: typically, people don’t purchase hearing aids so they can listen to music. Speech is their primary concern. However, what happens is that, when they do listen to music, they realize that some of the experience is missing. Because music listening can be such an emotional experience, our industry needs to refocus and rededicate itself to provide the best solution with music as possible.
With the Venture platform, Phonak has placed a lot of research emphasis on the music setting, which is automatically activated in the presence of music. When music is detected, it activates both hearing aids in full music mode. In this mode, the aids are using the new input dynamic range, a new dedicated program with slower time constants, and also a new calculation of the gain model. When all these components come together, it forms a much richer music listening experience.
The over-driving of the analog-to-digital converter on the front end of the signal processing—traditionally, one of the key problems in music enjoyment with hearing aids—is also addressed.
HR: Phonak has a well-deserved reputation as a leader in directional technology and speech-in-noise strategies. Where do you see the industry moving in this regard?
Lang: Phonak took the position many years ago that intelligibility can be enhanced by better utilizing the hearing aid network: two hearing aids that can share all their data and use all their capabilities. An example is StereoZoom, which works by creating a binaural network of four microphones. In Audéo Venture, we launched our third generation of binaural wireless technology, and it uses all four of the hearing aid microphones to create a narrow beam that provides better speech intelligibility in noise. And now we can also move from a static setup to an adaptive setup, meaning that the system is constantly optimizing the noise limit and restricting noise energy.
This technology is particularly helpful when the noise is not necessarily coming from the back, but may also be coming from the sides, or when the user is in an asymmetric noise situation, or even when the main noise source is moving. For these situations, the new system is superior [to the previous one] and yields about 1.5 dB better speech reception thresholds [translating into as much as 10-15% better speech recognition in noise] than previous devices.
At the end of the day, this is what our R&D is all about: better understanding of speech in difficult listening environments—situations where you need the very best in directional microphone systems.
HR: Accessories have always taken a back seat to hearing aids in our industry. Yet, arguably more than any company, Phonak has really concentrated on accessory development. Why?
Grieder: There are significant opportunities here for both Phonak and our dispensing partners. When you speak with audiologists, I think all of them understand the opportunity in accessories. But it’s the behavior change and practice emphasis that are difficult. For those who do change [their focus to include accessories], it’s amazing how they’re able to increase sales and customer satisfaction levels. So I think there is a big opportunity in this area moving forward.
Lang: We’ve conducted a lot of end-user research, and we’ve found most consumers are not informed about these accessories. When we’ve also asked consumers if they would have expected to be informed [of all the accessories that apply to their hearing aids and hearing loss], about 80% indicated that, yes, of course, they would expect this information to be provided to them. So, I think that, at least in this area, we can play an important part in helping clinicians provide consumers what they want beyond the hearing aids themselves.
Grieder: It’s really beneficial for the independent audiologist and hearing care professional to be offering a comprehensive line of hearing solutions individualized for each patient. In my market visits, I’ve seen a practice in the UK driving accessory sales by actually going home with the consumer, getting a full picture of the patient’s needs, and then counseling the patient about the accessories that are available.
Lang: This is why we’re trying to make our accessories—and the demonstration of their benefit—so much easier. All of Phonak’s new accessories can be demonstrated quite literally “out of the box” by simply pushing a button and streaming sound into the hearing aids. And we also want to help hearing care professionals show these benefits. Hearing is believing.
Grieder: One example is EasyCall. This is a universal telephone solution that attaches to the back of any cell phone. From a user’s point of view, the only thing you need to do is pick up the phone when it’s ringing and press the button. You can then hear the caller with your two hearing aids until you hang up the phone. It works out of the box; the hearing care professional doesn’t have to fit it, and it provides a very seamless user experience with little or no effort from the dispenser. [Spice and Quest products are backwards compatible with EasyCall. EasyCall II works with Venture platform devices and will work with future products.]
HR: And that’s also the idea behind ComPilot Air, as well?
Lang: Our classic ComPilot comes with a neckloop, and it has served as our workhorse for cell phones or Bluetooth-enabled music sources for many years. We then introduced a new improved version of it [ComPilot II] with an extended streaming time. But now we have the ComPilot Air II, a unit that comes without a neckloop. It is a streamer with remote functionality that you can wear on your collar.
To operate it, you just hear the phone ring, you pick up the phone by pushing the main button, and have your phone conversation with sound in both ears. You hang up the phone when finished. For those who don’t like the neckloop, this is an ideal solution.
The degree to which our people are excited about [Venture and these new accessories] and the response we’ve received have been very gratifying—especially when you consider that they represent years of work from our development team. In my 14 years at Phonak, I can say that I’ve never experienced this type of response.