Blog | November 2, 2017

 

DopplerLabsDoppler Labs—the San Francisco-based developer of the DUBS Acoustic Filters, Here Active Listening, and Here One Wireless Smart Earbuds—announced that it will be going out of business this week. A developer of one of the most interesting products in the new class of “hearables” and a strong advocate for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, Doppler’s homepage now contains a “Dear Customers” letter that explains its closing. In summary, the company ran out of funding, while suffering from low sales, a problem with battery-life, and challenges in its supply chain. The letter states:

“So what happened? To put it simply, over the past months, we took hundreds of meetings in an attempt to secure the necessary capital to continue running our business and build our next product – which would have been a true alternative to traditional hearing aids. However, we couldn’t find the needed capital to develop another complex hardware product.”

The mission of the 4-year-old company was to “build a computer for the ears.” Doppler was founded in 2013 and received several rave reviews for its DUBS acoustic filters and Here One smart earbuds. It really was an innovative product. However, even with its relative product strengths, it ultimately sold only 25,000 of its Here One devices, with 15,000 left still unsold in storage. As Doppler’s letter states:

“But we are sad to say that, despite our best efforts, we have reached a point where we have to wind down Doppler Labs. This is not because our vision of the future is not going to happen. We are actually more confident than ever that it will. Amazing hearing aids will be available at lower prices, and you will be able to tune them yourself. Tens of millions of people will be interacting with audio-based smart assistants, translating hundreds of languages instantaneously, and even going without their phones because smart earbuds will give them access to the people they love and the data they need. We wish we could have been the company to establish this future, but we know others will build on what we started, and we’ll be rooting them on.”

An excellent article by David Pierce in WIRED (November 1) looks at the rise and fall of Doppler Labs. From a hearing industry perspective, Doppler was also a strong and constant advocate for OTC hearing aid legislation, and the company’s KR Liu was a fixture at virtually all the PCAST, NASEM, FDA, and FTC workshops, as well as the recent ADA convention. Doppler saw great promise for OTC hearing devices opening up a new world of hearing help.

In his article, Pierce cites the well-known Silicon Valley gripe, “Hardware is hard” — meaning that the physical development, manufacturing, and distribution of an electronic product is rife with obstacles when compared to producing apps and software. No doubt. But you can also ask a lot of very smart, noble-minded, and gifted engineers and executives, hailing from companies as large and varied as Bausch & Lomb and RCA Labs (Songbird Medical), and they’ll tell you this: “Hearing is hard.”

For decades, we’ve ruminated about and wondered why more people don’t seek help for their hearing problems. The obstacles include cost/affordability and convenience/accessibility. But they certainly are not confined to these two factors (eg, see more from Sergei Kochkin’s MarkeTrak data). Hearing in noise, sound quality, stigma and cosmetics, reliability, battery life—and perceived value—are only some of the other factors. For example, Kochkin’s early MarkeTrak work suggested that if you tried to give away free invisible hearing aids, most consumers would not accept them if the devices didn’t help you hear well in noise. US hearing aid market penetration rates are not vastly different from those countries that provide hearing aids free of charge (see article by Amlani & Hosford-Dunn). A wide array of devices in the United States currently sell in the sub-$800 price category, ranging from low-cost professionally dispensed hearing aids to online PSAPs, many of which would suffice for a “starter hearing aid.” Not one appears to be upending the industry or causing consumers to blaze a path to dispensing offices, hearing device websites, or mass merchandisers.

Our market is simply a tough nut to crack, even as it lures companies with a siren call of what appears to be an “untapped market of 24 to 48 million desperate consumers” (eg, see Brent Edward’s 2006 article about how outsiders view our industry). However, after hundreds of millions of dollars spent in product development and consumer advertising by global hearing healthcare companies over the decades, one comes to this inevitable conclusion: Hearing is hard. —KES

Karl Strom is the editor of The Hearing Review.