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
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