Winner of the Department of Science and Technology Director-General Award for Overall Excellence, category for small enterprises
When you put people first, excellence follows, says hearX
When government announced a few years ago that all school learners must be screened for hearing and vision loss in grades 1, 4 and 8, Professor De Wet Swanepoel knew this was an impossible task for South Africa’s approximately 600 audiologists.
Something would have to be done very differently, he realised, and an idea began germinating.
De Wet, who is part of the University of Pretoria’s Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology department, took his idea to a computer engineering colleague, Dr Herman Myburgh. Together, they built the world’s first clinical smartphone hearing test solution.
Knowing they needed the expertise to commercialise their invention, De Wet and Herman knocked on the door of serial entrepreneur and start-up investor Nic Klopper, who has founded seven businesses.
The result of this teamwork was the hearX Group, founded in 2015 with the vision, “healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere”.
hearX has already made a pretty good start with that. In less than three years, the business’s solutions have screened over 150 000 people, many of them in far-flung rural districts.
“From the beginning, our focus has been on bettering the lives of people. We are first and foremost a social impact company, screening for the masses,” says Tanya Boretti, hearX Marketing Manager. “We truly want to have an impact by making hearing care affordable and accessible.”
Putting its money where its mouth is, hearX has built a series of smart digital health solutions that are about 50% cheaper than conventional audiology tests and can reach many more people.
Says Tanya: “It all started with our founders wanting to solve a problem and coming up with an idea that would make a real impact. That sparked an entire business and has disrupted an entire industry. Excellence happens when you put people first.”
Winner of the Excellence in the Management of Innovation award for 2017, category for small enterprises
Hear how hearX has disrupted hearing screening
If there is one industry that has been desperate for disruption, it’s audiology, which deals with hearing and hearing loss. Until the hearX Group came along and disrupted the market, the industry hadn’t experienced much disruption before.
“We come out of an industry that was very traditional and almost stagnant. It was one of the least disrupted industries over the past decade,” says Tanya Boretti, Marketing Manager at hearX, a proudly South African company that is turning the audiology industry on its head.
Traditionally, to test someone’s hearing, the person would have to sit in an audiometric booth wearing headphones attached to a machine called an audiometer while an audiologist conducted hearing tests.
hearX has compressed all of this bulky equipment into hearScreen, a streamlined medical device consisting simply of a calibrated smartphone and headset. Apart from being just as reliable and accurate as a traditional audiometer, hearScreen has all kinds of advantages that conventional systems lack.
For one, it’s significantly more affordable. “Our solution is almost 50% cheaper than the traditional audiometer,” says Tanya.
Second, the hearX device is lightweight and portable – so instead of patients having to travel to clinics or hospitals to have their hearing screened, hearScreen can go to them. That’s critical considering government’s integrated health programme, which requires that all learners in grades 1, 4 and 8 be tested for vision and hearing loss.
“There are only 600 registered audiologists in South Africa and millions of schoolchildren,” says Tanya. “No way can the conventional model of screening ever reach all children at schools.”
hearScreen neatly overcomes the skills gap: it was built for the layperson and the person using it for screening need not be an audiologist.
In fact, hearX trains community members in areas around schools to use the device. “So we create jobs too,” Tanya says, adding: “There is no manual data capturing. The device does that. Once collected, the data is uploaded to a cloud-based management portal, encrypted and protected.”
If the screening results pick up any hearing loss, hearX hands the case over to an audiologist who does the intervention care.
Since 2015 when HearX was registered, hearScreen, which is patented and trademarked and ISO 13485 certified, has screened over 150 000 people across 25 countries. As Tanya puts it: “That speaks volumes about the power and reach of innovative technology.”