San Jose Mercury News
By Heather Somerville
CUPERTINO — I’m sorry, what did you say?
The awkward strain of trying to hear someone speaking just a few feet away is all too familiar for many of us who frequent noisy restaurants and rowdy bars. Catching every few words and struggling to read lips, we may give up on the conversation and succumb to eating in silence or signaling for the check.
These hard-of-hearing moments inspired Cupertino startup Soundhawk to make high-tech devices that cost a tenth the price of some hearing aids, are accessible without a prescription and attractive enough to wear at a business meeting or Sunday brunch.
The company, founded by Stanford ear surgeon and serial entrepreneur Dr. Rodney Perkins, announced Tuesday it has cinched $5.5 million in venture funding and an agreement with Foxconn — the Asia manufacturing company that also makes Apple products and has been beleaguered by labor rights issues — to begin building the Soundhawk earpiece and microphone. The company has been researching and testing the hearing device since 2012, and with the new deal announced Tuesday, it will begin selling to consumers by late summer.
Soundhawk joins an array of what’s known as personal sound amplifier products that have become popular options for people who may have some hearing problems but don’t need or want expensive hearing aids or other medical devices. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets and the popularity of Bluetooth headsets and wearable tech devices have created a market for tech startups inventing ways to hear better by using mobile apps, wireless technology and discreet ear pieces. Soundhawk is aiming for consumers who are tethered to their smartphones and endure some hearing problems in noisy environments — not such a dramatic loss that they require a hearing aid but enough of an annoyance that they’d be willing to spend $299 on a new gadget.
“Every single one of us every day puts ourselves in environments where there’s lots of background noise,” said Michael Kisch, chief executive of Soundhawk. “It could be walking down the street in San Francisco, or going into restaurants. These are situations where the environment overwhelms the biology. This is technology that is designed to enhance something — your ears — that works for you in almost all situations except these times when you find there is just too much noise.”