by David M Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition
This CNET review is a intriguing article about Bose’s quest to tap into the auditory health and better sleep market.
PSAPs, or personal sound amplification products, is a term brought to public attention in 2015 by the White House President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology followed by a report from the National Academy of Medicine last October. PSAPs are an emerging class of products that are also called hearables (think wireless earbuds with extra features) that we’ve been following for the past couple of years.
PSAPs are interesting because they represent a host of tech innovations and innovative young tech companies that promises to disrupt the traditional hearing-aid industry that has been dominated for decades by a hegemonic group of risk-averse manufacturers known as the “Big Six,” a market that is carefully regulated by the FDA. The result of decades of regulation and dominance by a handful of companies is that traditional hearing aids are both absurdly expensive, and also not particularly innovative. No surprise there.
But a couple of months ago, the emerging market for PSAPs blew wide open thanks to bi-partisan legislation (the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act, co-sponsored by Senators Warren and Grassley) which exempts PSAPs from regulation. And that means three things:
1. Now you can buy PSAPs directly from the manufacturers or at CVS/Walgreens etc. (“over the counter”) without a prescription and you don’t have to pay an audiologist to fit them;
2. PSAPs cost a fraction of what a pair of traditional hearing aids costs (PSAPs may cost you $150 to $400, but compare that to $4,000 to $10,000 for conventional hearing aids); and
3. Two dozen hungry, young start-ups funded through crowd-sourcing or by venture capital professionals are charging into this market.
So If you, like me, like to watch a tech-race unfold, then get out your binoculars and join the crowd at this track because its an exciting race in a market that has been moribund and over-regulated for decades.
Watching this restless bunch of young PSAP startups and their colorful jockeys (I mean their CEOs), and eyeing them very carefully, are a small but high-powered group of suits you’ll recognize from consumer electronics: Apple, Sony, Phillips, Bose, et al. Why? Because these are the big guys who are already in the ear business–they sell earbuds and headphones, among other things and wireless hearables is a potentially important new market. The ear is their turf. So if they can grab a piece of the de-regulating market for wireless hearing-assistive devices that’s a great business opportunity, right? After all, 48 million Americans are hearing-impaired so this is potentially a big niche market, and who knows how many Americans are sleep-deprived?
But what about Bose?
Bose—an intensely private, even secretive consumer electronics company headquartered on top of a small mountain near Boston—is the first of these big consumer electronics players to make a move in the PSAP race. Bose’s founder, Amar Bose, died a couple of years ago, but he was a singular, legendary force in consumer electronics and seemed to be the fountain from whom all of the company’s products poured. With his death, ownership of the company was turned over to Amar Bose’s alma mater, MIT (yes, MIT controls the majority stake but has no say in management). But can the company still innovate now that it founder and chief idea-guy is gone?
One approach to innovation is through acquisition. So last year, Bose acquired the San Diego-based startup Hush and recently announced the release of a new Bose-branded product based on the work done by three engineer-entrepreneurs who founded Hush not too long ago. If you’ve been watching this emerging market, you probably noticed that only last week, the self-declared front-runner in PSAPs/hearables a product called “Here One” from the company Doppler Labs, ran out of juice and went out of business. Why? They burned through $50 million trying to win this horse race, but then ran out of money and couldn’t get Apple or Sony or any of the rest of the big guys to pony up and buy them out. Sometimes that happens to front-runners and it’s too bad, but it clears the way for others to emerge. And Bose wants to be one of the next group as these horses round the first corner.
Now Bose, in addition to being intensely secretive, has also always done things differently. And they’re certainly going after this emerging PSAP/hearables market from some intriguing angles. For instance, they recently have launched a crowdfuning campaign for their new Bose® noise-masking sleepbuds™. Another example is their newly announced Hearphones for people who need help understanding speech in noisy environments. Both of these products indicate that Bose is probing the now-deregulated “hearing health market”—a big departure from their traditional focus on consumer electronics. Perhaps they think 48 million Americans is a viable niche market where they can beat Apple, Sony, Phillips and the Big Six hearing aid companies by getting out of the gate faster. Who knows? Bose has succeeded by focusing on niches ignored by others and they’ve got their own retail stores, so keep your eyes on them.
It’s a race. And some of us are watching closely to see what happens. If you placed a bet on Here One and lost, then just swallow hard and keep your eyes on the race. It’s only just begun.
In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.