As a founder of the California Ear Institute at Stanford University, Rodney Perkins met many of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley. Among the surgeon’s friends—and sometime patients—were William Hewlett and David Packard; Intel’s (INTC) co-founder, Gordon Moore, and its former chief executive officer, Andy Grove; and Manhattan Project charter member Edward Teller, one of the inspirations for Dr. Strangelove. Over the years he lunched with Apple (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs and worked with leading venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner. “I didn’t realize until very recently that I had actually been a voyeur at the biggest renaissance since Florence,” Perkins says.
Although few in the frenetic, youth-obsessed technology world know his name, Perkins, a 77-year-old otologist in Woodside, Calif., didn’t just watch that Valley renaissance from the sidelines. Starting in the mid-1970s, while he continued to practice medicine, he founded more than a dozen companies that operate at the intersection of medicine and technology. His startups included cosmetic pioneer Collagen, medical-device maker Laserscope, and ReSound, one of the first companies to incorporate digital signal processing into hearing aids.
Now, at an age when most doctors have traded their scrubs for Bermuda shorts, Perkins is at it again. He’s beginning a new endeavor, Soundhawk, that’s trying to break into—and widen—the $6 billion-a-year market for hearing aids. Soundhawk’s Bluetooth headset and associated smartphone app will help millions of people, including those who don’t technically have hearing loss, in noisy environments such as restaurants. “This allows people to personalize their hearing devices to their individual auditory profile,” Perkins says. The company has raised $5.7 million from angel investors and venture capital firm True Ventures.
Soundhawk is similar in some ways to Google (GOOG) Glass, albeit less conspicuously geeky. It’s a wearable computer meant to enhance a key human sense and improve communication with the outside world. Early next year, Soundhawk will begin selling the device online and in stores. The company wouldn’t provide a specific price, but Perkins says it’ll cost several hundred dollars, compared with roughly $2,500 for a typical hearing aid.
The device, a polished curved piece of black plastic that fits snugly into one ear, looks indistinguishable from a Bluetooth headset. “Hearing aids are these flesh-tone things that have a stigma to them,” Perkins says. “Part of the idea is to make this attractive from a cosmetic standpoint and not make it look like there’s an old piece of bubble gum in your ear.” There’s also more technology packed into a Soundhawk than a typical Bluetooth gadget, including chips that can run advanced audio algorithms and a wireless radio.
With Soundhawk’s smartphone app, a wearer can adjust sound frequencies on an intuitive 2D grid, emphasizing short-range conversational speech and de-emphasizing background noise. There are millions of possible auditory profiles. The system also includes a wireless microphone that pipes sound into the earpiece. A user can place the mic next to the person he’s chatting with to narrow Soundhawk’s range further.
For a demonstration at the startup’s small offices in Cupertino, Calif., Soundhawk CEO Michael Kisch pipes loud background noise from a cafe through a speaker. Amid the burble of voices it’s difficult to hear anyone in the conference room, let alone Kisch, formerly senior director of telepresence marketing at Cisco (CSCO), who joined Soundhawk last year. But a reporter is wearing the Soundhawk headset in one ear, and after testing a few frequency ranges on the app, the chatter falls away, leaving crisp, clear conversation. The wearer can then save settings for that location on his phone, name it (“coffee shop”), and call back those settings the next time he visits.
Soundhawk is the result of three decades of Perkins’s work. He says the idea really started to gel at Sound ID, a Bluetooth headset maker he founded in 2000. There, he applied cutting-edge ear science to consumer electronics. (He unsuccessfully pitched Steve Jobs over lunch to use Sound ID’s technology in the original iPhone.) Having spent many years tweaking conventional hearing aids, he acknowledges that the shortcomings of the underlying technology go beyond the cosmetic. They tend to amplify all sounds equally, exhausting patients with cognitive overload in noisy settings. They’re expensive, especially given the costs of fitting and follow-up service. And there’s a stigma. Perkins says the phrase “hearing aid” bugs him. “I don’t even like ‘earpiece,’ ” he says. “It sounds like a toupee. It has a disability feel to it.”
Perkins estimates that between 700 million and 900 million people worldwide who don’t qualify as hearing-impaired nonetheless occasionally strain to hear. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration opened the path to this market in 2009 by creating a new classification called personal sound amplification products. PSAPs aren’t covered by Medicare, and their producers aren’t allowed to make health claims, although that doesn’t stop people with more serious hearing problems from trying them.
Simpler hearing-strengthening apps have been around for years, but competitors with their own Bluetooth-style phone receivers are now crowding into the minimally regulated business. Leading companies include Sound World Solutions in Park Ridge, Ill., and SoundFest in Needham, Mass. “It will be difficult for all these companies to find a market,” says Richard Einhorn, a composer and advocate for hearing-loss sufferers. “There are a lot of very poor PSAPs on the market all selling at roughly the same price, and the consumer does not know whether they are going to get a piece of garbage or something very sophisticated.”
Soundhawk’s investors are betting Perkins can stand out from the competition. “He started 14 companies and took four of them public. I don’t think he has ever lost money,” says Puneet Agarwal, a partner at True Ventures. “Everything he does is rooted in deep science. This is not your fly-by-night mobile application.” Agarwal also marvels, as does everyone else, that Perkins is still starting companies at his age. Even though he stopped treating patients in 2004, Perkins says his current work keeps him practicing a form of medicine, exploiting his knowledge and experience to affect millions of patients he’ll never see. “Retirement is doing what you want,” he says. “This is what I love to do.”