Blamey Saun­ders: The hear and now

We hear a great deal about the very im­por­tant work con­ducted by Dr Graeme Clark in the field of cochlear im­plants and hear­ing. We hear less about the peo­ple on the re­search team with Graeme. In this is­sue of Busi­ness First we talk to Dr Elaine Saun­ders an

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Dr Elaine Saun­ders and Pro­fes­sor Peter Blamey speak about their work with Dr Graeme Clark and how they them­selves have made great strides in the field of hear­ing.

When he speaks of this time, you can sense the free­dom Pro­fes­sor Blamey felt when he was able to break the shack­les of pub­lic fund­ing.

That is not to put down the im­por­tance of the work many re­searchers do, but it does high­light some of the chal­lenges they are faced with.

When Pro­fes­sor Blamey started Blamey Saun­ders with Dr Elaine Saun­ders, who was also a mem­ber of Dr Clark’s re­search team, those chal­lenges dis­ap­peared to be re­placed by a dif­fer­ent set of pri­vate busi­ness co­nun­drums.

We’ll get to those shortly, but first let’s have a quick look at how Blamey Saun­ders was founded and what it ac­tu­ally does.

It be­gan with an in­ter­est in is­sues of hear­ing loss.

“I be­came part of Graeme’s re- search team and thus in­ter­ested in the is­sues of hear­ing loss and how best to help peo­ple with dif­fer­ent types of hear­ing dif­fi­culty at dif­fer­ent ages and so on,” says Pro­fes­sor Blamey. “It was fan­tas­tic to be a part of that team, and Elaine was part of that team as well. When we get to around about the year 2000, which is 20 years af­ter I first started work­ing with Graeme, we de­cided that we wanted to con­cen­trate on hear­ing aids and tech­nol­ogy for hear­ing aids. That’s when Elaine and I started the first busi­ness, Dy­namic Hear­ing which pro­gressed well, and then Blamey Saun­ders came along with it later.”

The foun­da­tion of Dy­namic Hear­ing and Blamey Saun­ders par­al­leled the ad­vent of new tech­nolo­gies in dig­i­tal hear­ing aids in the late 1990s. Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Blamey, since that time there has been an ex­plo­sion of new tech­nolo­gies and new al­go­rithms.

“The in­dus­try has re­sponded to that in lots of dif­fer­ent ways. The most re­cent things are pro­vid­ing new op­tions for con­sumers in terms of tele-audiology and peo­ple be­ing able to do things for them­selves, where they pre­vi­ously re­lied on au­di­ol­o­gists and pro­fes­sion­als to do the work for them.”

This brings us to the pur­pose of Blamey Saun­ders which de­vel­ops in­dus­try lead­ing hear­ing aids, and sells them di­rect to peo­ple for around half the reg­u­lar price.

Dr Saun­ders and Pro­fes­sor Blamey wanted to do some­thing about the high prices com­monly charged to peo­ple with hear­ing loss. This cul­mi­nated in the award-win­ning IHearYou® sys­tem which en­ables peo­ple to tune their own aids via their com­puter or mo­bile phone.

“The tech­nol­ogy that Graeme Clark in­vented back in the late 1970s for mul­ti­chan­nel cochlear im­plants has de­vel­oped into a very suc­cess­ful prod­uct for Cochlear, and that prod­uct in­cludes in­ven­tions that came from my team and other re­search teams. Some of those same in­ven­tions are now used in the hear­ing aids that Blamey Saun­ders sells,” Pro­fes­sor Blamey says.

The rise of the im­plant did cause some tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems.

“One of the prob­lems we had in the late 1990s, was that there were a lot of peo­ple with a cochlear im­plant in one ear and a hear­ing aid in the other. This meant they tended to have a left ear au­di­ol­o­gist and a right ear au­di­ol­o­gist, be­cause the tech­nol­ogy was so dif­fer­ent in the two ears. It doesn’t take a PhD to un­der­stand that that’s not the best for the cus­tomer.”

“Plus you only have one brain to man­age that,” Dr Saun­ders says.

Fol­low­ing a con­fer­ence in Lake Ar­row­head Cal­i­for­nia, Pro­fes­sor Blamey came back with an idea for a hear­ing aid that uses dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to am­plify sound, keep­ing it au­di­ble and com­fort­able at the same time.

Pro­fes­sor Blamey started to work with an en­gi­neer, Brett Swan­son at Cochlear, and to­gether they be­gan to work on a so­lu­tion with the dig­i­tal sound pro­ces­sor.

But the hear­ing aid side was to­tally dif­fer­ent.

Which is where the very well cre­den­tialed Dr Saun­ders comes in. Dr Saun­ders’ ac­co­lades in­clude be­ing awarded BioMel­bourne Net­work’s in­au­gu­ral Women in Lead­er­ship Award in 2015, Asia’s Lead­ing Woman in Health­care in 2011, the Vic­to­rian Pearcey En­tre­pre­neur Award in 2011, and the Amer­i­can Academy of Audiology’s Award for Achieve­ment in In­dus­try in 2010. She was awarded the 2012 Mel­bourne Award for Con­tri­bu­tion to Com­mu­nity by an In­di­vid­ual, and is one of Aus­tralia’s 100 most in­flu­en­tial women (2015). She says with any in­no­va­tion there is usu­ally a re­luc­tance to change.

“When you make a big in­no­va­tive change in an in­dus­try where there’s lots of trained peo­ple and clin­i­cians, it’s ac­tu­ally quite dif­fi­cult be­ing an innovator. Peo­ple don’t re­ally want to change. You think of medicine as be­ing the sharp edge of things, how­ever there is too much train­ing in­volved along the way, and it’s quite slow to get new tech­nolo­gies in­volved. We had a big chal­lenge.

“I think peo­ple talk about in­no­va­tion as though it’s ter­ri­bly easy. You in­no­vate some­thing and ev­ery­one wants it. The world doesn’t quite work like that for most things, es­pe­cially in medicine.”

Dr Saun­ders had a dif­fer­ent role with Dr Clark. She was a biomed­i­cal en­gi­neer and an au­di­o­log­i­cal sci­en­tist in the UK and was look­ing to re-en­ter the work­force af­ter hav­ing four chil­dren.

Dr Clark was look­ing for an au­di­o­log­i­cal re­searcher and hired Dr Saun­ders to de­scribe the clin­i­cal prob­lems that we needed engi­neers and sci­en­tists to solve.

“I used my skill, and in­deed cer­tainly de­vel­oped a lot more skill around be­ing able to frame clin­i­cal prob­lems and clin­i­cal is­sues and ex­press them in a way that en­ables engi­neers and sci­en­tists to use their abil­i­ties to solve prob­lems.

“It was re­ally about defin­ing what the clin­i­cal prob­lem was, be­cause engi­neers and sci­en­tists who are not deal­ing with clients don’t re­ally know what the prob­lem is, or how to lead the in­no­va­tion.”

Pro­fes­sor Blamey says that Elaine’s great strengths are that she’s a strate­gic thinker, but also a fan­tas­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tor.

“Those two strengths are things that we make the most of to­gether in the com­pany. We over­lap a lot. I’m a bit more nu­meric, I think about the num­bers and a bit more about how we get from A to B. To­gether we de­cide what the des­ti­na­tion is, where we want to get to. We both have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with small teams, so man­ag­ing peo­ple is a joint strength.”

The pair is ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­ple­men­tary and in­deed com­pli­men­tary of each other.

“We have a very large de­gree of re­spect for each other, and we think quite dif­fer­ently, as Peter said. We do some­times dis­agree, but that’s im­por­tant, ac­tu­ally, be­cause we have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. I think when we se­ri­ously dis­agree, it’s some­thing that we both sit down and think about quite a lot, be­cause we have high re­gard for each other’s think­ing and ra­tio­nale.”

The first busi­ness as touched on be­fore was Dy­namic Hear­ing. That is where the pair learnt how com­ple­men­tary their skills ac­tu­ally are.

“I needed to learn a lot more about mar­ket­ing and mak­ing good part­ner­ships with po­ten­tial busi­ness part­ners,” Pro­fes­sor Blamey says.

“Elaine was, to a large ex­tent, a men­tor for me. We did a lot of trav­el­ing to­gether around the world, and we vis­ited prob­a­bly ev­ery sin­gle hear­ing aid com­pany in the world over the five years. We got to know them quite well, and that of course gave us the ter­rific ex­pe­ri­ence base for run­ning our own hear­ing aid com­pany, which is what we’re do­ing now.”

With Blamey Saun­ders the pair started by in-li­cens­ing the tech­nol­ogy they had pro­duced with Dy­namic Hear­ing.

Dy­namic Hear­ing was a ven­ture cap­i­tal backed com­pany that was owned ini­tially by the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne and ven­ture cap­i­tal.

“We were the founders and we drove it, but didn’t own it,” Dr Saun­ders says.

“We li­censed hear­ing aid tech­nolo­gies and blue-tooth head­set tech­nolo­gies all over the world.”

Peter ex­plains fur­ther, “One of the things that was very costly for the big hear­ing aid com­pa­nies was that they were used to de­sign­ing their own chips and elec­tron­ics for their hear­ing aids. When dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy came along, the price tag for de­vel­op­ing a new dig­i­tal chip was some­thing in the or­der of ten to twenty mil­lion dol­lars. They were used to do­ing that ev­ery cou­ple of years. The in­dus­try changed be­cause there were open plat­form chip man­u­fac­tur­ers, who would spend ten to twenty mil­lion dol­lars but make that open to small com­pa­nies like Dy­namic Hear­ing to use. So with­out us need­ing to

spend any money on hard­ware de­vel­op­ment, we could put all of our cash into al­go­rithm de­vel­op­ment and come up with world-lead­ing ideas and world-lead­ing hear­ing aids, with a very lean and mean cost ef­fec­tive busi­ness model.”

That has trans­lated to Blamey Saun­ders, which Elaine be­lieves is Aus­tralia’s premier hear­ing aid com­pany. Their am­bi­tion is to com­ple­ment Cochlear’s suc­cess in cochlear im­plants with their suc­cess in hear­ing aids.

It is a big goal, but Elaine be­lieves there is noth­ing that has hap­pened thus far that could de­ter them from that aim.

Blamey Saun­ders is play­ing in the ad­vance­ment of au­dio tech­nol­ogy and has fed­eral govern­ment sup­port.

“Blamey Saun­ders is pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship in three im­por­tant ar­eas: tele-audiology, clin­i­cal prac­tice, and tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment,” Pro­fes­sor Blamey says. “We’ve just re­cently got a grant from the com­mon­wealth govern­ment – Ac­cel­er­at­ing Com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion Grant. It’s for late-stage tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment and tak­ing it to mar­ket. That’s a big grant that will help us de­velop our man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­ity over the next 18 months or so.

“What we want to do is de­velop strong hear­ing aid man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­ity here in Mel­bourne. We’re part way along that jour­ney, with blue-tooth pro­gram­mer de­vice that we de­vel­oped in Mel­bourne. That’s part of what we call the IHearYou sys­tem, which won the So­cial In­no­va­tion Award in the Good Design Aus­tralia awards in 2015.

“We’re do­ing very in­no­va­tive things with the tech­nol­ogy it­self, and that’s what’s en­abling the big ad­vances that we’re mak­ing in tele-audiology and in clin­i­cal prac­tice. We’re tak­ing the pain out of buy­ing a hear­ing aid and do­ing all the things that make it eas­ier for cus­tomers.”

Now, with the tech­nol­ogy mov­ing for­ward, Blamey Saun­ders is con­cen­trat­ing more on com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion and the busi­ness model.

This in­cludes gain­ing the cus­tomers’ trust and con­fi­dence in the tech­nol­ogy.

“We can demon­strate to some­body within half an hour of get­ting started that the hear­ing aids will ben­e­fit them by im­prov­ing their speech per­cep­tion in quiet, and we can demon­strate to them the ad­van­tages of wear­ing the hear­ing aids in a noisy en­vi­ron­ment,” Dr Saun­ders says. “So you know, the cus­tomer can see for them­selves that the de­vice works. We do this with­out re­quir­ing a lot of ex­pen­sive equip­ment or highly trained staff. That means a cost ef­fec­tive busi­ness with those sav­ings passed onto the cus­tomer with­out them hav­ing to go to a clinic.”

Pro­fes­sor Blamey says Blamey Saun­ders is now at a point of tran­si­tion. At the mo­ment, the hear­ing aids they sell are ac­tu­ally man­u­fac­tured in Thai­land.

“We’re chang­ing that so that in the fu­ture most of our hear­ing aids will be made in Aus­tralia. But we’ll prob­a­bly still work with part­ners from out­side Aus­tralia as well, just to pro­vide a big­ger choice in the mod­els that peo­ple can buy.”

That is a pretty sub­stan­tial busi­ness model and is a long way from hunt­ing for grants as a re­searcher.

As the evo­lu­tion un­folds for Blamey Saun­ders, it is on a path to achieve its aim of be­com­ing as well known and re­ported as Cochlear.

Dr Elaine Saun­ders

Pro­fes­sor Peter Blamey

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