Mimi, a company launching today as part of TechCrunch’s Disrupt NY Startup Battlefield, plans to use the iPhone to help people with hearing loss.
I didn’t know much about the issue before discussing it with co-founders Philipp Skribanowitz and Pascal Werner, but they pointed me to a number of articles and studies about how widespread hearing loss has become, affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide.
And four out of five of those affected in the United States don’t seek treatment. The reason, Skribanowitz argued, is that the process of getting tested and fitted for hearing aids is long and complicated, and then the devices themselves are expensive (usually costing thousands of dollars for each ear).
Mimi, on the other hand, is launching an iOS app that allows users to test their hearing using their existing earbuds. It can also simulate the experience of enhanced hearing, which should convince some users that it’s worth paying for treatment. And conversely, if your hearing is fine, the app can simulate hearing loss so you get some sense of what, say, your friends or family might be going through.
Skribanowitz let me try the app (it was pretty strange to interview him while Mimi was muffling my hearing), including a key feature that isn’t available in the current version — live hearing enhancement. In other words, users could potentially walk around with the app on and their iPhone would continuously enhance their hearing. However, that’s being left out for now because it would categorize Mimi as a medical aid, which comes with a lot of regulatory requirements. (That’s also why Mimi can’t describe the product as a “hearing aid”.)
The company will go through the government approval process eventually, Skribanowitz said, but it wants to get a basic version of the product onto the market first.
The app is based on technology developed by co-founder Nick Clark, who has a Ph.D. in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Nottingham and was formerly a researcher at the University of Essex. In the product release, Clark said Mimi uses “digital signal processing to enhance the audio experience for the listener, and machine learning that utilises data from all of the places where Mimi’s technology is deployed.”
As one example of who might use Mimi, Skribanowitz pointed to his father who is unlikely to go in for a diagnosis and might be skeptical about paying for an aid. On the other side of the spectrum, he said hearing loss is increasing among younger people as well, and app-based testing system should appeal to them, too.
The app is free, but Mimi plans to charge a monthly fee for premium features like unlimited hearing enhancement. It will also sell hearing enhancement devices that use similar technology but don’t require you to keep your earbuds in at all times. (In that case the phone is used for setup and fine-tuning.) However, Skribanowitz emphasized that Mimi’s focus is on software, not hardware, meaning the company could also integrate its technology with other apps and devices.
During his Disrupt presentation, Skribanowitz said that whatever option customers choose, the cloud technology will allow them to “change the settings, whenever and wherever, while getting guidance from Mimi.”
Update: Here are some notes from the question-and-answer session with Battlefield judges.
Q: How does this fit into existing hearing distribution channels?
A: We want to partner with other apps, including Audible. “Those are really great multipliers.”
Q: How important are the headphones you use during the test?
A: We measure the headphones with an artificial ear, and we can also eliminate errors by detecting whether the ambient noise is too loud or if your headphones can get flipped.
Q: Are audiologists a channel for you?
A: More and more hardware companies are coming up with smartphone-adjusted hearing aids, and we’re happy to work with them.
Q: Could it test children?
A: We have multiple tests and we have special tests for children.
Q: Is the image of the hardware just “a beautiful shell”?
A: We were approached by a partner who has hardware ready and was looking for a software counterpart. “We think hearing aids should not be something which you color flesh colored and try to hide. It can be something you wear like hipster glasses. It should become a proud item to wear.”