Yuri Sokolov, president & CEO Vivosonic

Vivosonic, Toronto, was founded in 1999 as a spin-off company of the University of Toronto. The company is now involved in the development, design, and manufacture of computer-assisted diagnostic audiology equipment. Company president and CEO Yuri Sokolov, PhD, MBA, recently spoke with the Hearing Review.

What are some of the products your company is known for?

Our first product, the VivoScan™, is an advanced, portable clinical OAE audiometer with screening capabilities. It has been received very well by hearing health care professionals. As the next step, we are developing an evoked potential extension to this instrument to include ABR (auditory brainstem response) and ASSR (auditory steady state response) functions. We also make a custom research instrument for the study of DPOAE dynamics in real time, particularly the dynamics of DPOAE suppression, with a unique resolution of 1 millisecond. Although our instruments employ advanced technology, we strive to make them simple to use and user-friendly which is why we make our easy-to-clean OAE probes, with calibration data stored in each individual probe.

What is the biggest challenge facing the industry today?

The biggest challenge is that the market has not been growing in almost all segments of the hearing health care industry—from diagnostic equipment to hearing aids. The fact that only 22% of those who have a significant hearing impairment actually own a hearing aid implies that, from the consumers’ perspective, hearing help is limited to about one-fifth of the hearing-impaired population—leaving the rest with little help. From the business perspective, this rather stalled market penetration hinders further investment and growth of the industry, while at the same time it represents a major, multi-billion-dollar business opportunity.

What sorts of changes would you like to see in the industry? How do you think it could be improved?

I think two things could be improved: one is refocusing marketing efforts in the industry. These efforts have been traditionally limited to manufacturers’ targeting almost exclusively professionals—audiologists, otolaryngologists, and hearing instrument specialists inside the industry, or at the wholesale level. This results in price competition and merely redistributes market shares among manufacturers, while the total market penetration remains almost the same. Therefore, I would like to see both manufacturers and professionals jointly focusing and significantly intensifying their marketing efforts outside the industry on the public at large, or at the retail level. In that, I would spotlight three major objectives: the first is making the public much better aware of hearing loss and its impacts on human life. The second is making the public aware of solutions to hearing problems, which can dramatically improve the quality of life, and of the hearing health care industry that provides those solutions. The third and perhaps most difficult objective is eliminating the stigma of hearing loss and making hearing aids as widely accepted as eyeglasses, with the highest-end hearing aids as valued as Rolex watches.

However, this is not enough: all market estimates are based on already detected cases of hearing loss, while it remains unrevealed in millions, thus limiting not only the market penetration, but also and more importantly the estimate of the market per se. Therefore, the other change I would like to see is a much larger attention to the prevention of permanent hearing loss. Technologies like DPOAE testing are already in place to detect changes in the cochlea well before they translate into a permanent hearing loss, while hearing-protective technologies are also in place. Universal hearing screening—proven to be so successful in neonates—should extend to regular screening in people of all ages and become universal indeed. This will not only preserve hearing in millions, but will also feed millions back to hearing health care for further diagnostics and intervention, thus increasing both the market size and market penetration.

How is technology changing the industry? How does technology inform what you do as a company?

Technology has been dramatically changing the hearing health care industry: to name a few, OAE and AABR tests make universal infant hearing screening reliable and widely accepted; ASSR makes objective measuring of hearing thresholds and further intervention in infants possible; DPOAEs make monitoring of ototoxicity and noise-induced hearing loss objective and thus preventing permanent hearing loss more effective. In this respect, we respond by developing new technologies and instruments to make these tests faster, more accurate, cost-effective, and eventually more practical for hearing health care professionals. Particularly, DPOAE and ASSR functions in Vivosonic instruments are based on our Vivography™, a signal-processing algorithm that makes it faster and more accurate than conventional averaging and FFT.

What do you see for the future, both for the industry and for your company?

Strategically, increasingly more emphasis will be placed on product differentiation, as opposed to emphasizing price competition by producing products with features fine-tuned to the needs of individual end-users. This new emphasis will be made possible through much faster accommodation of innovations from other industries, such as computers and telecommunications, particularly wireless, and also from within the industry itself. In marketing, the focus will be gradually shifting from the wholesale level of professionals to the retail level of end-users— the general public. This will eventually make complete market penetration possible.