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Student project: Hearing Assistance Innovation

Professors Jan Blustein and Scott Taitel of NYU Wagner are seeking to form an interdisciplinary
team of students across NYU to investigate innovative solutions to address the technology,
business and policy challenges around hearing loss. The solution will likely require policy
competencies around aging, disability and broad analytic approaches, technology
competencies around audiology, sound and product engineering and programming and
business competencies around product design and marketing making this a unique opportunity
for a strong interdisciplinary team with student engagement across multiple NYU schools.
The Problem: Rates of hearing loss increase dramatically with age. By age 65, 1 in 3 adults has
a clinically significant hearing loss; by age 80, 80% have a hearing loss.
Currently, 1 in 5 people who could benefit from a hearing aid wears one. Barriers to ownership
are complex, and include high cost (hearing aids cost ca. $2500 each; they are not covered by
Medicare or most health insurance programs); stigma (for many, wearing a hearing aid is
associated with old age), and poor device performance (hearing aids amplify sounds somewhat
indiscriminant manner; many people just can’t adapt to them). For a summary of these barriers
and more, see this.
The Opportunity: There are opportunities for innovation on many fronts. Two big areas are:
Hearing aids (HAs)
Hearing aids are medical devices designed to treat hearing loss, and so they are subject to tight
FDA regulation. The global market (4.5 billion in sales in 2015) is dominated by 7 firms, only
one of which is US-based. Manufacturers partner with audiologists, with whom they have
historically had close relationships. The typical old-fashioned audiologist cooperates with ca. 2
of the firms, selling just their lines. These arrangements are being disrupted by several
developments that are bringing the cost of hearing aids down, and will likely bring costs down
 Sales of hearing aids at big box stores like Costco
 Sales of hearing aids online (e.g. Audicus)
 Congressional passage of an Over-the- Counter hearing aid bill this summer, which has
mandated that the FDA relax regulation of devices.
In addition, innovations in engineering may lead to the development of “smarter”, more
effective HAs.
A key point: hearing loss is complicated! Getting a hearing aid fitted and learning to use a
hearing aid is not trivial. Hearing aids are not like glasses – it’s not a “you put them on and they
work” device. So, it’s a big open question as to how effectively people can fit their own devices.
This caveat extends to the discussion of “hearables,” below.
Consumer electronics devices (“hearables”)
The hearing aid monopoly has had little incentive to innovate — – Has have not come down in
price in the past 30 years. But the consumer electronics industry is now entering the hearing
assistance space. It appears that developers have several goals, including:
 Lower cost
 Non-stigmatizing appearance (cool looks like wireless headphones; marketing devices as
“conversation enhancers” rather than “hearing aids”)
 Better, more adaptive functioning (hearing aids are typically “set it and forget it”; some
hearables can be adjusted on-the- fly)
 Pairing with smartphones
Hearables and hearing assistance devices come in many forms. See for example Bose’s Hear
Phones, Jacoti’s Listen App (and LoLa).
Despite these incremental improvements, this continues to be a complex issue in which there is
not a single, silver bullet, but the moment has come where innovative solutions will receive
tremendous attention and will likely be attractive to funders.
Call to Action
Students interested in this opportunity should reach out to either Jan Blustein (
or Scott Taitel ( who will work with the students to organize a workshop where
initial questions will be addressed and resources will be identified to determine next steps.