Dick Vessella, BC-HIS, of Advanced Hearing Technologies LLC, discusses how using customized vacuum products can extend the life of hearing instruments.

Dick Vessella, BC-HIS

Recently, Hearing Products Report (HPR) had the opportunity to interview Dick Vessella, BC-HIS, founder of Advanced Hearing Technologies LLC, in Portland, Ore. Vessella discussed the development of the jodi-vac line of products.

HPR: When and where was jodi-vac established? Who are the company’s founders and current decision-makers? How many employees? Please tell us about your company.

Vassella: jodi-vac conceptually started in 1997. John Maidhof and I started kicking around ideas on how to keep my CIC users in their hearing aids for longer periods of time without having to come and see us for service. We started experimenting with coupling attachments for household vacuum cleaners, different ways of drying aids—any idea we could try—until John found a mini vacuum pump with enough pull and flow to do the job.

In 1998, the company was established as part of db’s Hearing Aid Service LLC, in Portland, Ore, with John, his wife Kathy, and myself. It took some time to develop a product that is easy to use, safe for the user and the hearing aid, while requiring very little maintenance.

In 2000, we exhibited at the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) meeting, in San Diego, where we met with two other companies wanting to help take the product to the next level. From that meeting, Advanced Hearing Technologies LLC was born. jodi-vac is the main product line for Advanced Hearing Technologies LLC. With this group we are starting to distribute worldwide and advance the design and scope of the products we manufacture.

Presently, we are located in Portland with a staff of 25—both here and overseas. Our professional products are manufactured in Portland; our consumer products are built to our specifications in China.

HPR: How was it decided that the industry was ready for a line of hearing aid vacuums?

Vassella: The industry has needed better ways of controlling debris in hearing aids for decades. In the 20 plus years I have dispensed hearing aids, I cannot remember a time in which debris was not the leading cause of hearing aid failure. In 1993, CIC instruments were introduced, bringing this issue to the forefront. If you dispense CIC instruments, you realize the need for better user maintenance. I know a great many industry professionals today who shy away from dispensing CIC instruments, partially due to debris-related issues. To answer your question, the need was always there. Finding a way for the user to maintain their investment is the solution.

HPR: What hearing instrument cleaning technologies were available at the time jodi-vac entered the scene?

Vassella: When jodi-vac entered the scene, the industry offered the consumer picks, brushes, drying containers, and some electric dryers. A few professionals owned vacuum systems, but they were few and far between. At the time we entered with a consumer vacuum cleaner, the industry did not know whether to accept or reject what we were trying to do.

HPR: How many prototypes were developed before the perfect model was available for marketing?

Vassella: We tried many different ways to make this easy for the consumer. I remember going into the field to clean a pair of instruments, asking the patient for the use of her vacuum cleaner. I had brought with me an adapter to place over the vacuum hose to see if we could generate enough pulling power from a standard household vacuum. Needless to say, I spent at least an hour using picks and this adapter trying to save her hearing aids from repair. After many attempts to produce something small, lightweight, and efficient, John hooked up with a major pump supplier. Using their expertise with what we had already learned, John settled on a low-voltage mini-pump, which gave us maximum efficiency at the business end of the needle. The hardest part of the journey was finding a needle that enables maximum flow while inside the nubbin of the receiver. Using the various sizes of standard applicator needles, we found nothing acceptable. We then moved to sharps. We settled on a sharp, but needed to modify it for maximum efficiency. For the first year, each of these needles was modified by hand. We eventually found a machine shop where they could modify to our specification. Today, we have a custom needle manufacturer produce our needles for us.

HPR: Do you maintain an R & D department?

Vassella: John is our R & D department. He just revamped the XL model and is presently working on a new consumer model. We are also field testing a new portable pro model with more power. John is constantly looking to add improvements to our products.

HPR: What are the components of a typical hearing aid vacuum? How do they vary?

Vassella: Let’s go over a typical vacuum for the consumer and a typical system for the professional. The consumer needs simplicity; the parts of the vacuum that come in contact with the hearing aid must be easy to manipulate and efficient to use. The pump should be low voltage for safety and worldwide use. The filter must be simple to change and the needle should be easy to clean. Even the switch to turn it on and off should be large and easy to move. Those are the basics. Adding a few special features and supplying a quality pump-motor assembly all add to the overall success of the product. The professional needs a tool to clean and take care of all kinds of hearing aid-related problems. A vacuum-desiccator system is much more complicated. We use two pumps and motors, one for the needle vac/pressure side, and one for the desiccator. The desiccator should also have heat applied to keep the drying process working while the chamber is in vacuum. It also needs a desiccant to give the moisture somewhere to go. This will be used in an office and should not be a nuisance. The needle-vac/pressure side should be independent so both the desiccator and needle-vac can be used simultaneously. This system requires a pressure switch and valving to maintain efficiency. In addition to these basics, having efficient needles makes these tools indispensable for the professional.

HPR: Hearing aid vacuums are jodi-vac’s signature product. Describe your inventory of products and their target base.

Vassella: We have three different hearing aid vacuum cleaners. Our signature product is the consumer model, small, lightweight, designed for travel and easy to use. It produces 16 inches Hg of vacuum, comes with our specially designed needle, and has a flow indicator to show when the needle needs cleaning. Our filtered tubes are disposable, making it easy to maintain. Our pro model is a small portable tool for the professional to use in their office or take with them in the field. It has a medical grade pump and motor rated to last 2,000 hours; we have added a brush built in to the case to clean the needle while in use. It comes with both a needle for ITE, ITC, and CICs and a special needle for BTE tubing. All of our vacuums use the disposable filtered tube with built-in flow indicator. Both the consumer model and the pro model are available with a travel bag. The jodi XL is a vacuum/pressure/desiccator system. The XL utilizes two pumps and motors for maximum functionality. One pump is dedicated to the vacuum/pressure side, developing 21 inches Hg vacuum/29 PSI pressure. For infection control, we use separate tubing and needle setups for both vacuum and air pressure. The second pump is dedicated to the desiccator. When the desiccator is in vacuum, the pump turns off allowing for quiet operation. The plate is heated to keep the moisture removal process working once vacuum is achieved. Having two pumps and motors allows for the desiccator and either vacuum or pressure to be used simultaneously. The pro model and the XL model are for concerned professionals who need to keep hearing instruments working. Giving the consumer the opportunity to take care of his or her own instruments is a winning situation for everyone. The consumer now has reliable hearing aids, and the professional will have happier consumers telling their friends how much they enjoy hearing aids.

HPR: How do jodi-vac’s technologies differ from those of its competitors?

Vassella: Working directly with the hearing aid user for all of these years gives us a different perspective. We do a few things differently. Designing the most efficient needles for use with hearing aids gives all of our products an edge. A disposable filtered tube adds to ease of use. Portability and office friendly noise abatement. Heat applied to the desiccation process. But beyond that, giving the consumer a real tool for preserving the sound quality of their hearing aids is a win for everyone. The consumer is happier wearing instruments that consistently work; the professional benefits from more efficient use of time; and the manufacturers benefit from less warranty work and more positive hearing instrument endorsements.

HPR: Does the company distribute its products both domestically and internally?

Vassella: We started locally and are branching out globally. We have numerous distributors in North America. If you contact any supplier of audiology supplies, they probably handle our products. We have a few accounts that buy direct. Learning the ins and outs of foreign distribution is more than a full-time job. Distributors are coming online from around the world. The US Department of Commerce is invaluable helping to sort through the reams of regulations necessary to export to other countries. Low voltage is the key to worldwide distribution. Meeting all of the various power requirements is much easier with low voltage.

HPR: How does jodi-vac market to its consumers and dispensers? How do you help distributors with their marketing efforts?

Vassella: Since we are a small entity, capital is always tight. Our main marketing in the industry is through this and other trade publications, plus a few major meetings. As our capital base grows, more marketing will follow. The biggest hurdle we have to jump over is educating the professionals to the fact that their hearing aid users can use a vacuum without hurting the instruments. For our distributors, we have priced our products at levels so they have a healthy margin and support them by standing behind our products completely.

HPR: Describe the perfect user base for the company’s technologies.

Vassella: All hearing aids suffer from debris problems. I truly feel that if the individual is cognitive enough to handle the hearing aid, they can work with jodi. Every professional needs to be trained and set up with a vacuum system. I cannot imagine how you can run a practice without having a way to remove debris and oils from receivers and microphones. Ideally, everyone who has put his or her hearing aids in the drawer due to reliability issues should get one of our vacuums. Getting their hearing aids in reliable working order would convince them that using hearing aids is a positive experience, not negative. I wear hearing aids and have for 10 years. I notice a change in how my instruments work in as little as 3 days without vacuuming.

HPR: Does the company offer additional hearing products and services?

Vassella: jodi-vac is always working toward improving our products. I still have a dispensing practice, and John still operates his repair business. Our daily interaction with patients has given us insight on how to improve products to make it easier for the users to maintain sound quality, and enjoy using hearing aids.

HPR: What is the next technological leap for jodi-vac?

Vassella: In the next few months we will introduce a new consumer model jodi. Without giving away too much, this model will offer most of the add-ons suggested to us over the past 2 years. We are also working on a cordless rechargeable unit. The efficacy of a smaller unit would depend on development of a powerful enough pump and motor combination designed to work off rechargeable batteries.

HPR: What are the model goals for the company for the next decade?

Vassella: Our goals in the past and for the future include educating the professionals and the consumers in the advantages of using vacuums to keep sound quality reliable. Six years promoting this project have brought me closer to the consumer’s frustration with our industry. I truly feel that, if given the choice of having to go to the professional to clean their hearing aids or taking care of the problems at home, the consumer will choose home. We need to move toward including a vacuum with each and every hearing aid dispensed. This will open the market and bring in more hearing impaired to our offices for help.

—R. Schuyler Silverman