Hearing loss is common: 35 million Americans are affected, according to the Better Hearing Institute. Hearing aids, however, are far less prevalent, used by only one in four of those who need them. Audicus, a new online marketplace for buy-direct hearing aids, aims to make the tools more widely available and desirable. “Traditional clunky and noticeable designs come with a high price and the stigma that they’re synonymous with ’old age,’ or ‘handicaps,’” founder Patrick Freuler tells Co.Design. “Our goal is to reposition hearing aids away from medical devices, and toward a lifestyle product or accessory.”
Time is on their side. A series of recent FDA court rulings and revisions, Freuler explains, have broken down the traditional retail system, where an audiologist would provide testing, advising, programing and fitting, warranties, and after-sale support. “These services (which run about $1,600) and the cost of the hearing aid (about $400) are ‘bundled’ into one lump sum of approximately $2000. The end result is that prices end up being opaque and unaffordable, but leave users with no real alternatives,” Freuler says.
The legislative shifts will give Audicus an opportunity to streamline the steps by “un-bundling” the non-clinical services, effectively eliminating the middleman. They also happen to coincide with an entirely different kind of sea change. “Our target demographic–greater than 50 years of age–has made quantum leaps adopting the internet in recent years,” he says. As baby boomers and golden agers begin to truly take part in the digital revolution, Audicus has an active audience for its disruptive new business strategy.
Commercial logistics aside, subtle, efficient design of the aids themselves was an imperative for Freuler. In-canal aids have traditionally necessitated “costly, tedious” tailored impressions. “Our products come with replaceable, flexible silicone sleeves that make the custom mold obsolete and give the user full control of the physical fit. As a result, they are more discreet and more comfortable to wear,” he says of the three varieties offered by Audicus, all designed by a European design firm that focuses on hearing tech. aSwing and aSoul require an audiogram–a standard test that can be performed by most audiologists and hearing clinics–which can be easily emailed or inputted directly to the site. “It allows us to custom-program the hearing aid so that it addresses each individual’s particular hearing loss,” Freuler says, and compares it to prescriptions required by Warby Parker or 1-800-Contacts. aJive, an assistive listening device, can be ordered without an audiogram. Democratization of both process and prices–which start at $399–give Audicus the potential to make hearing aids as common as reading glasses.