A reported 3,200 practice owners and industry guests (3,600 people when counting Starkey staff) attended the third biennial Starkey Hearing Innovations Expo held at the Cosmopolitan hotel and convention center in Las Vegas on January 20-23. The Starkey Expo has quickly become one of the world’s largest gatherings of dispensing professionals—primarily decision makers and business owners—from the United States and Canada, as well as 42 other countries.

This year’s all-star lineup of presenters included numerous bestselling authors, two former US presidents, actor Ben Affleck, the stars of the popular TV show Shark Tank, and basketball Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson. Throw in 24 industry speakers, 50+ Starkey presenters, Sammy Hagar and the Beach Boys for musical entertainment, as well as breakout sessions hosted by some of the field’s best researchers, business leaders, and marketing experts, and the 3-day event moved along at a dizzying pace, offering something for everyone.

Starkey Senior VP of Sales and Marketing Brandon Sawalich served as the host of the 2016 Starkey Innovations Expo.

Starkey Senior VP of Sales and Marketing Brandon Sawalich served as the host of the 2016 Starkey Innovations Expo.

In introducing the Expo, Starkey Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brandon Sawalich said that, with all the recent changes in technology, healthcare, and the aging Baby Boomer population, there has never been a greater opportunity for hearing healthcare professionals. He outlined the three overarching themes for each day of the event: 1) Technology; 2) Marketing; and 3) Purpose. Sawalich also described the Solutions Hall which offered products and services from partnering companies, the Innovations Center which showed how R&D plays an integral role in the development of hearing aid components and related products, and the Social Media Impact Lounge. Additionally a Genius Bar previewed Starkey’s upcoming Synergy product line that is scheduled for a March 1 launch. The overall theme of the conference was Hear Better, Live Better.

Technology, the Starkey/Bragi partnership, Synergy, and the sharks from Shark Tank. To kick off Thursday’s focus on innovative technologies, Forbes columnist and book author Mike Maddock provided examples of the people and personality types who are able to “free the idea monkey” and move the world rapidly forward with innovation and change. He explained that invention is simply coming up with an idea, while innovation is solving a real need. Maddock believes that too many companies invent but don’t innovate, and the best businesses depend on the ying-yang personalities of people who are highly inventive and others who are more pragmatic.

Starkey Chief Technology Officer Tim Trine then announced the company’s newly formed partnership with Bragi, asserting that Bragi is the developer of the world’s first true hearable device capable of performing as an electronic assistant with up to 27 possible sensing parameters. As an example of one possible future application, a video produced by Starkey portrayed a scenario in which an older Baby Boomer is having a wireless conversation with his daughter while carrying a basket of laundry in his home. Upon walking up a flight of stairs, he grows faint and slumps to the floor, at which time his hearable device senses his heart rate and postural change, asks him if he needs help, and upon his affirmative voice reply, calls 911 then sends an instant message to his caregiver (daughter) who quickly calls him. All of this takes place automatically within minutes, requiring no external device other than the ear-worn hearable.

The Dash from Bragi

The Dash from Bragi.

Bragi Founder and CEO Nikolaj Hvvid, a native of Denmark, then outlined his company’s product, the Dash hearable device that “entertains you, enables you, and protects you.” Hvvid explained that his kickstarter campaign focused on the development of a multi-functional product for athletes, but its ultimate goal goes far beyond this concept, delving into the social, health, cultural, and even financial realms—and he says the device was deeply inspired by his sister’s challenges battling muscular sclerosis. Hvvid believes the future of communication in our lifetime will entail “passive and transparent” (discreet) devices that connect the human mind with cloud-based computing and knowledge, with the purpose “to enable, protect, and take people on the road” to better futures. His company is working with Starkey to develop a custom version of the Dash, and the current device was featured in the Expo’s Demonstration Hall.

Simon Carlile, PhD, Starkey’s senior director of research and a professor of neuroscience, outlined how the Internet of Things, Cloud computing, Moore’s Law of exponential processing, and even electroencephalography (EEG) and the cracking of the neural code for speech are leading to new—and what some might view as wild—ideas for reshaping the future. Similarly, Starkey Manager of Mechanical Engineering Brian Dobson showed how 3D printing is changing the world of manufacturing and product development. He says there is an almost-exponential growth in patents related to 3D printing, and this product area is now poised to be a $23 billion industry by 2020.

Tim Trine provided a sneak-peek of the company’s upcoming product launch, Synergy® with Acuity OS, Muse, and Surf2 systems. The new products are scheduled to launch on March 1. Trine also shared some work Starkey is doing in rechargeable hearing aids, as well as his impressions of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, which was held in Las Vegas the week prior to the Expo. He believes that sensors that detect everything from body temperature to global positioning will be employed in myriad electronic devices, and a new class of “invisibles” will ultimately emerge to connect consumers to vast networks of information and communication products.

The Shark Tank's Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, Damon John, and Mark Cuban discussed what it takes to be successful entrepreneur.

The Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, Damon John, and Mark Cuban discussed what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Starkey VP of Audiology and Professional Relations David Fabry moderated a Q&A session featuring four of the stars from the hit-series Shark Tank: Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, Damon John, and Mark Cuban. As members of a TV show that features millionaire-entrepreneurs who evaluate new ideas as investment opportunities, the Shark Tank panel offered behind-the-scenes insights into the show, light-hearted snipes at each other, as well as their philosophies for identifying innovative, promising businesses and capable business leaders.

Thursday night’s keynote address was provided by engineer and physician Peter Diamandis, who authored of the bestselling book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, and created of the XPrize Foundation. Diamandis believes that increasing prosperity, new tools, connectivity, and what he characterizes as the “audacity” of inventors and entrepreneurs will transform the world in unexpected ways; he says technologies, including new information networks, sensors, robotics, 3D printing, synthetic biology, virtual reality, artificial intelligence (AI), and more, will profoundly change the future.

Marketing and Branding to “Make it the Year of the Ear.” On Friday morning, Brandon Sawalich kicked off a day that focused on leading within your own market, stating “You’re not competing if you’re the competition.” He also emphasized that Starkey Hearing Technologies is a business partner committed to not competing against its own customer base; it does not offer its products in Big Box retail stores.

Starkey Director of Consumer and Digital Marketing Carol Olson reiterated this message in her presentation, adding that brand awareness is best accomplished through individual practices. “A brand is a promise,” says Olson who outlined a new marketing program undertaken with Conde Nast that reaches 131 million consumers through magazines and websites that include Golf Digest, The New Yorker, and Wired. She also said Starkey has become the first exclusive hearing partner of WebMD, the popular healthcare website that draws over 80 million monthly visitors. According to Olson, WebMD visitors can now take an online hearing screening test, and those who fail the screening have the opportunity to learn more about their hearing care options, including hearing aids from Starkey.

Randi Zuckerburg of Zuckerburg Media, and sister of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerburg, presented a lively account of her involvement in social media, as well as future trends. She believes that marketers should pay special attention to YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter when promoting their messages to the public. She also made the case that the “new workplace”—large and small— is increasingly creative, mobile, and needs to communicate like a media company, disseminating information in many different channels.

Satjiv Chahil presented "A Silicon Valley Perspective" on hearing healthcare and marketing.

Satjiv Chahil presented “A Silicon Valley Perspective” on hearing healthcare and marketing.

Starkey VP of Marketing Chris McCormick introduced Satjiv Chahil who will serve as the company’s new global marketing and innovation advisor. Chahil is a Silicon Valley marketing guru known for linking technology companies—including Apple, Palm, and Hewlett-Packard—to the worlds of entertainment, sports, music, and fashion. Chahil believes that the traditional “4-Ps” of marketing (price, product, promotion, and place) now have an additional “5th P”: Purpose. He says the creation of global awareness about the importance of hearing, the establishment of hearing tests as an integral part of healthcare screening, the removal of stigma and other barriers to purchasing hearing-related products, and driving brand preference for Starkey products will “make it the year of the ear.”

“It is Starkey’s time,” said Chahil.

Hearing aids have not yet captured the imagination of Baby Boomers, says David Fabry, but this generation is definitely interested in the stylish wearables. Citing products like FitBit and the Bragi Dash, Fabry contends that the ear will become the “new wrist” for conveying on-demand, personalized information that monitors physical activity, health, and communications.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink (Drive and A Whole New Mind) showed how behavioral science is overturning conventional wisdom about human motivation, and offered ideas about a more effective path to high-performance sales and fighting the forces of commoditization.

President Bill Clinton spoke of his work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Former President Bill Clinton talked about his work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Friday night’s keynote was given by the 42nd US President, Bill Clinton, who talked about the so-called “Butterfly Effect,” a term that refers to how seemingly small actions can create large, lasting, unexpected effects on the future. In particular, he spoke about the commitments and work being done by both the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Magic Johnson spoke of both his basketball career, but more importantly, about his purpose as a successful businessman and enterpreneur.

Magic Johnson spoke about his basketball career, but more importantly, about his purpose as a successful businessman and enterpreneur.

Work with a Purpose. On Saturday morning, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, stole the entire show. Talking candidly about his youth, his Hall of Fame career in the NBA, and the building of his $700 million business, Magic Johnson Enterprises, he roamed around the expansive meeting hall engaging in relaxed and humorous conversation while taking photos with audience members. Johnson described how he started a movie chain, Starbucks coffee shops, a large food service company, and learning centers by identifying unique needs—often in under-served and economically disadvantaged urban areas that were frequently ignored by corporate America—and then painstakingly built a brand reputation that people identified with and admired. His credo: over-deliver every time, and make certain that the customer knows you care about them. Johnson also believes strongly in reinvesting in his business, software, and employees, while adapting and adjusting to changes in the market.

Similarly, author Andy Andrews told attendees that you can’t compete against someone who has done a superlative job in satisfying a customer—irrespective of your price or location. He advised that, if you want your business to be truly extraordinary, then by definition you cannot operate exactly like other competing businesses. Instead, you should look at your business as a vehicle for helping people and for generating stellar referrals. Nothing can beat word-of-mouth advertising, says Andrews. In this light, traditional advertising is the penalty paid for not being remarkable enough.

David Fabry addresses the changing technology in hearing healthcare.

David Fabry addresses the changing technology in hearing healthcare.

David Fabry outlined components of the Starkey Hearing Foundations’ Community-based Healthcare Program Mode, which is designed to provide sustainable hearing care by 1) Identifying groups of people in need of hearing healthcare; 2) Developing and undertaking missions to provide the appropriate care, then 3) Establishing aftercare programs for the monitoring and maintenance of care in a sustainable manner. “Our ultimate goal,” says Fabry, “is to make [the Foundation’s services] obsolete.”

Starkey founder and CEO Bill Austin.

Starkey founder and CEO Bill Austin.

Bill Austin, founder of Starkey and the Starkey Hearing Foundation, looked back on his career and journey in hearing healthcare. Throughout his younger years, he says he was inspired by the story of Albert Schweitzer, as well as the lives and actions of his grandfather and great grandfather who frequently went out of their way to help complete strangers who were experiencing hard times. Reflecting on the Butterfly Effect, Austin said “So how important are you? It’s not about the money; it’s about caring. We can make it a good day because it’s our choice to contribute positively or negatively…The future isn’t about the hearing aid business. We’re in the business of helping people to overcome barriers so they can help each other move forward.” According to Austin, the hearing healthcare field is now on the cusp of dramatic technological change—a change no one will want to miss—that will open new markets and  avenues for dispensing professionals. “We can deliver a higher level of hearing care. The problem isn’t over-the-counter or Big Box retail; the problem is having enough people to serve the needs for all the people who will want our help.”

Starkey's Brandon Sawalich chats with President George W. Bush.

Starkey’s Brandon Sawalich chats with Former US President George W. Bush.

Actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck chatted in a Q&A session with the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s Steven Sawalich about the Eastern Congo Initiative, which has worked alongside the Foundation in Africa. Affleck talked about his work in partnering with companies like Starbucks and Theo Chocolate, two companies that are now purchasing coffee and cocoa from farmers in the war-torn region and helping increase people’s standard of living.

Saturday night’s general session featured the 43rd US President, George W. Bush, who talked candidly about his eight years as president, leadership, as well as his relatively quiet life now—including his new-found love of painting.

Breakout Sessions. Additionally, each day of the Expo featured close to a dozen concurrent breakout sessions that focused on that day’s topic. For example, on Thursday, one could choose from an impressive list of seminars about hearing science and emerging technologies, including a session by Nina Kraus, PhD, of Northwestern University’s Kraus Lab, who spoke about how the brain responds to auditory information and music, and a seminar by Anu Sharma, PhD, from the University of Colorado at Boulder who detailed her team’s findings about brain reorganization in response to hearing loss (including mild hearing loss). On Friday, sessions on the topic of marketing and branding were offered, including a seminar by Starkey Senior VP of International Operations Phil Lyons and independent practice owner Gyl Kasewurm about price anchoring.

Wait, what about the drama? So what about the drama surrounding the September firings of long-time Starkey President Jerry Ruzicka and several C-level executives? Although one could sometimes find a hushed conversation about the subject, it did not overshadow the event. Because Starkey could not comment on the situation due to the ongoing FBI investigation into the former employees, nothing was said in public by Starkey presenters about the firings or lawsuits. However, the Expo’s depth and breadth of subject matter (and frenetic pace) did much to quell talk about the lawsuits and recent turmoil; the event showed there is little question that Starkey remains a well-run forward-thinking company with plenty of management talent and an eye to the future.

The Starkey Hearing Innovations Expo is a biennial event that has been held since 2012.