Starkey was founded in 1967 by Mr. William F. Austin, better known as Bill. It has since grown into one of five (and the only US-based) major hearing aid companies responsible for more than 90% of global hearing aid sales.
Based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, our focus since inception is innovating in the market with patient-focused technology and services. Our purpose – to connect people through better hearing – is driven by our mission to serve our customers better than anybody else. During the past 54 years, we have grown to over 5,000 employees around the world.
Hearing Loss as a Global Health Issue
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are approximately 466 million individuals worldwide with a “disabling” degree of hearing loss; this number is estimated to nearly double to 900 million people by 2050. In 2020, however, only 17-19 million hearing aids were sold – worldwide – suggesting that hearing aids are used by less than 5% of those with hearing loss. In the United States, the adoption rate is better. However, in 2020, only one in three individuals with hearing loss use hearing aids. While accessibility and affordability to hearing aids and hearing care are barriers to use, the stigma surrounding hearing loss and hearing aids remains a huge challenge.
Reinventing the Hearing Aid
In 2018, Starkey launched Livio AI as the industry’s first hearing device to use embedded sensors and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to reinvent the hearing aid and redefine expectations regarding modern hearing aid performance. This device serves the fundamental need of ensuring outstanding speech intelligibility and sound quality in quiet and noisy listening environments, while also enabling hearing aid users to monitor physical activity such as steps, exercise, and standing throughout the day. It even monitors social engagement, including metrics on usage, other talkers, and listening environments. Results are displayed with our Thrive smartphone application designed to help people “hear better and live better” by focusing on conditions with high comorbidity to hearing loss, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, risk of stroke, and diabetes.
By motivating hearing aid users to be physically active and socially engaged, Starkey is transitioning hearing aids from single purpose devices into multi-purpose, multi-function ones that provide a gateway to overall health and well-being. Livio AI was the first hearing aid to incorporate sensors capable of detecting falls and providing text alerts with physical location to trusted contacts via text message. Even mild hearing loss increases the risk of falls threefold – this feature provides peace of mind for caregivers and family members so their loved ones can remain safe and live independently in their own home, if they so choose.
In 2019, we expanded Livio AI features to include real-time translation, transcription, and voice commands that focused on “ease of use” for hearing aid users. These are not “your grandmother’s hearing aids.” With multifunctional utility, our devices can stream phone calls, podcasts, navigation instructions, and music directly from iPhones and an increasingly wide array of Android phones through a simple user interface. By focusing on form and function, we started to hear from patients that instead of being stigmatized by hearing loss and hearing aids, their family and friends began to think that their hearing aids were actually “cool.”
In 2020, Starkey continued the hearing aid revolution with the introduction of Livio Edge AI with “Edge Mode,” which put the power of Artificial Intelligence at the hearing aid user’s fingertips. In often challenging quiet or noisy listening environments, a simple tap or touch on the hearing aid initiates an instantaneous acoustic optimization for speech audibility unique to that listening environment. We launched this newest feature in January 2020 with optimism and enthusiasm for the year ahead.
With Livio Edge AI, the power of artificial intelligence is at your fingertips, giving you never-before-possible sound performance in the most challenging listening environments. Choose from a standard rechargeable style — or the world’s first custom rechargeable hearing aid — and give yourself the edge you deserve!
COVID-19 Changes Everything
Six weeks after the launch of Livio Edge AI, the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in North America. Older individuals were among those most vulnerable to the virus, and as a result, were fearful about visiting clinics and retail shops for hearing health care. Although hearing loss may occur at any age, first-time hearing aid users’ average age is approximately 70 years old. As a result, the second quarter of 2020 saw business decline by more than 80%. This reduction was devastating to many audiologists and hearing instrument specialists; many small business owners shuttered their offices to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Under Starkey President and CEO Brandon Sawalich and the Executive Team, Starkey initially focused on providing virtual webinars for our customers to help them better understand new challenges stemming from the pandemic. We covered many topics, including applying for Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans, using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), keeping patients and employees safe, accessing curbside and telehealth services, and best practice methods to safely provide essential hearing healthcare services during the pandemic. Starkey partnered with Eden Prairie-based Lakeview Industries to assist with assembling face shields for first responders and healthcare workers.
“Disruptive Innovation” and the Pandemic
People with hearing loss experience significant communication challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks attenuate sound, making it nearly impossible to read lips or see facial expressions. Social distancing guidelines double or triple the usual distance for conversations, compromising lipreading and reducing speech audibility. Online chats for work or socializing have poor sound quality. Furthermore, hearing aid users often find that face mask ear loops become tangled with hearing aids worn behind the ears. Many people gained a greater appreciation for the essential role hearing plays in connecting with others. With these concerns in mind, we adapted our offerings to best serve our customers.
After hearing from Livio Edge AI users that “Edge Mode” provided significant benefits when they encounter individuals wearing face masks and using social distancing, we optimized our product for the current environment. We went back into the laboratory, measured the impact of different medical-grade, fabric, and transparent masks, and further adapted “Edge Mode for Masks” to optimize speech audibility for hearing aid users during these most challenging times. By putting the power of AI at the patient’s fingertips, we provided innovation for a use case that had not existed just months earlier.
In January 2020, we launched the industry’s first custom in-the-ear, rechargeable 2.4 GHz device that enabled direct connection with a smartphone or tablet. Unlike hearing aids that fit behind the wearer’s ear, custom devices remain securely in place when the hearing aid wearer is placing or removing face masks throughout the day. The rechargeable battery provides over 19 hours of battery life, even when streaming Zoom or Teams calls for hours a day.
Finally, Starkey quickly adapted our fitting software in response to practitioner requests to expand our telehealth capabilities. This group wanted to include both real-time (synchronous) and “store-and-forward” (asynchronous) services to enable remote hearing aid programming and fine-tune without requiring face-to-face clinical visits for minor adjustments.
The combination of these three innovations led to a significant recovery in the second half of 2020, with Livio Edge AI becoming our most successful product in history. Renewed interest in custom devices has resulted in the highest increase in completely in-the-ear devices in decades. Compared to previous years, the use of telehealth quadrupled in 2020, and many clinicians adopted remote fine-tuning as part of ongoing clinical practice. There is no silver lining from COVID-19, but necessity was the mother of innovation for Starkey.
As Nietzsche (Friedrich, not Ray) said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how.” Last year was a testament to that statement. Starkey’s purpose since our founding is to build caring products that connect people through better hearing. Our mission is to serve our customers better than anyone else. In conjunction with professional expertise, our technology delivers optimal benefits for those with hearing loss. Our vision is to lead the world in hearing health and wellness for patient-driven care.