Through Hearing Components Inc, founder Bob Oliveira, PhD, uses his chemistry background to bring the technology on the outside of a hearing aid up to speed with the advancements on the inside.
Bob Oliveira, PhD
The same motivation that drove Bob Oliveira, PhD, in 1990 to create his company, Hearing Components Inc, Oakdale, Minn, still drives him today.
Oliveira had been working for 3M™ for 18 years, leading its cochlear implant business for 5 before it decided to exit that part of the business in 1985. He, then, became the company’s venture director, charged with finding new business.
“I looked around the world, literally, and realized that there were two opportunities. One opportunity that was clear was that hearing aids could be improved dramatically,” Oliveira says. “I also realized that the hearing aid industry did not know very much about chemistry. The plastics used were the same plastics used in the dental industry back in the 1930s.”
Oliveira passed on the improvements in hearing aids to 3M, and left the company to create Hearing Components, with a focus on bringing new chemistry to the hearing aid industry to improve the fit and feel of all hearing devices.
Hearing Components conducts basic research on the ear canal to improve hearing devices, such as hearing aids, as well as cell phones, earsets, stethoscopes, and other products.
“We are extraordinarily focused on the ear canals, and the interface of those with materials—all trying to improve or protect hearing,” Oliveira says.
The company designs, manufactures, and markets, business to business, Ad·hear™ Cerumen Guards, Comply™ Canal™ Tips, Comply™ Soft Wraps, and Comply™ Snap Tips, which are proprietary replaceable products that improve the reliability and performance of hearing devices.
Hearing Components also licenses out its technology to various companies, and provides tips for the devices that use them. The company has expanded outside of the hearing aid industry to the general aviation field, the military market for helicopter application, and most recently, into consumer electronics.
Oliveira, who is trained in chemistry, found that combining his scientific knowledge with the hearing device industry was a natural move. When he began his company, Oliveira believed the physical fit of hearing aids could be improved—something he still believes.
“If you were trained in plastics or chemistry or materials, and you looked to see how hearing aids are practiced today, you would find it hard to believe,” he says. “If you, as a potential patient for a hearing aid, were given a piece of something soft and something hard that were put in your hand, which one would you rather have in your ear?
“Hearing aids should be physically coupled or interfaced with the ear,” Oliveira says. “Back then, we had a concept that there should be something like a capsule to contain electronics and then the other part of the hearing aid ought to be something that molds to the shape of the ear and is soft and gentle.”
Stepping Up the Pace
While the technology inside hearing aids has dramatically improved over the years, Oliveira says the technology on the outside has not kept pace.
“What’s happened now is that the inside of the hearing aids has become just phenomenally sophisticated. They don’t have these common components like they used to have,” he says. “The inside of the hearing aids has really been beautifully advanced technologically. Now there are even hearing aids that talk to each other to help them hear better. But we’re still practicing to a great measure with the same plastic things on the outside.
“We think that if you really look at it objectively, in the hearing aid industry, the time is now for improving the physical fit of hearing aids, and bringing technology forward on the outside that matches the inside,” Oliveira says. “In our company, we’ve been working to really make the highest-tech tip. And we’ve done lots and lots of research to support it.”
The National Institutes of Health has supported Hearing Components’ efforts over the years, awarding Oliveira four Small Business Innovative Research grants, at approximately $1.75 million.
In the early 1990s, the company conducted the first MRIs of the ear canals to understand the biomechanics of changing mouth position, and how it can influence the ear canal, and, in turn, affect hearing aid fit (see Figure 1). That was followed by a study that used custom software created by Hearing Components to laser scan ear impressions to get three-dimensional pictures of the ear canal.
“What we’ve concluded is that the ear canal is absolutely dynamic, and that’s very consistent with the solutions that we offer of using soft, compliant materials that can expand and contract as the ear canal expands and contracts,” Oliveira says. “That’s part of the secret to why our approach has been so successful.
“We are the high-tech tip,” Oliveira says. “We’ve done lots of studies on the ear canal and understand it to be a very dynamic and changing place, which is all the more reason that the materials you put in there, at least part of them, should be dynamic and changing.”
Oliveira believes the solution to that problem is the use of a compliant seal, made of foam. Hearing Components has an active research program in improving foam to hold sound even better than what it does now—by more than three decibels, which would allow a person using the foam to be in a noisy environment twice as long without hurting their hearing, making a much more efficient connection to the ear, Oliveira says. Such an improvement has application in many fields besides the hearing aid industry.
“When you’re sending sound into the ear, if you can have a piece of foam with a hole in it in your ear to deliver the sound deeper into the ear into a smaller space, you actually can use less energy for the same perception, and you can protect the ear from the noise,” Oliveira says. “We use our foam to hold the noise out, and then pipe the desired sound in through a hole in the foam into the ear canal space, which we’ve reduced because of the presence of the foam.”
A Team Effort
The 25-member team at Hearing Components includes individuals studying the flow properties of plastics to optimize the pieces of foam, those studying the chemical engineering to optimize the chemistry of the foam and how it attaches to the device, and those looking at the attenuation characteristics of the foam.
“In the future, people in the dispensing practice are going to really realize that what they’re really selling is the inside of the hearing aid, and that on the outside of the hearing aid, they have very old technology, and that they should be matching the technology on the outside of the aid to that of what’s on the inside of the aid. That means using different chemistry. We believe our compliant foam is an excellent way to do that,” Oliveira says.
Oliveira has more than 12 patents, has published more than 30 articles or chapters on topics related to the human ear canal, and has given numerous invited presentations internationally.
One of the first patents that Hearing Components had dealt with an earplug.
“We took an earplug, which is known to keep sound out of the ear, and thought of it as a door. A door will keep people out of your house, but it will also keep people in the house. We realized an earplug could be used to keep sound in the ear. We made a tip to go in the ear that was made of earplug material,” Oliveira says. “It was intended to keep sound in the ear so that people with hearing aids could get more effective amplification.”
While the thought of one day working on hearing aids never occurred to him when he was back in chemistry class, Oliveira says he “loves” what he does.
“We think the time is right to change the technology and bring it up-to-date on the outside,” Oliveira says. “It’s much like if you have a fine automobile with the latest electronics in it, and you have wagon wheels on it. It just doesn’t compute. So we think you should have the finest tires on it.
“The company is really concentrated in a niche market: the two holes in your head. We probably have studied that more than anybody else in the world.”
Danielle Cohen is associate editor of Hearing Products Report.