South Africa’s hearX Group aims to provide affordable access to hearing care using digital solutions that anyone can use anywhere using cutting edge technology, the world’s first smartphone diagnostic otoscope, that detects hearing loss in time.
The startup launched by Prof De Wet Swanepoel and Dr Herman Myburgh of the University of Pretoria in 2015.
It has since received $2.8 million in funding from international investors to expand the range of products offered, as well as expand geographically. The hearX Group spoke to TechMoran about their product and plans for the future.
Briefly tell us about yourselves, your educational background, team and how you came together to form the hearX Group.
Prof De Wet Swanepoel Lead Inventor and Co-founder has 16 years of experience in audiological research having completed his doctoral studies in 2005. He has been actively involved in research, related to early identification systems and diagnostic techniques for hearing loss and he has expanded this into the area of ear and hearing telehealth. His primary affiliation has been with the University of Pretoria, South Africa but he also holds adjunct positions at the School of Behavioural & Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas and Ear Sciences Centre, School of Surgery, University of Western Australia and he has served as Invited Professor to the University of Orebro, Sweden and as a Raine Visiting Professor to The University of Western Australia. He joined the Ear Science Institute Australia as a senior research fellow in 2013.
In 2013, Prof. De Wet Swanepoel came up with the idea to develop a hearing screening solution, based on a smartphone device. Prof. De Wet approached the Engineering Department at the University of Pretoria, where he met with Dr. Herman Myburgh who saw the potential in Prof. De Wet’s idea. In collaboration, they worked on the initial version of the hearScreen, our flagship product. After the success of the initial version, our founders applied for a patent on the intellectual property of the invention – approved in 2014. HearScreen and the technology employed by the hearX Group is a world-first clinical smartphone hearing test solution.
Once the patent was approved, Prof. De Wet Swanepoel and Dr. Herman Myburgh approached Nic Klopper to be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the hearScreenTM Pty Ltd company since De Wet and Herman believed that Nic would be the best person to take the company’s IP to the market in a commercial manner with his experience as a serial entrepreneur. With the addition of more products to the company’s profile, the founders decided to create a new umbrella corporate now called the hearX Group.
How would you describe your company; how does it work?
The hearX Group (Pty) Ltd, is an award-winning startup with the mission of providing access to healthcare using mHealth solutions that anyone can use, anywhere. In many African nations, the general awareness of hearing loss is low and the severe shortage of health personnel and prohibitively expensive equipment has caused a lack of screening programs, resulting in most people being unable to access hearing healthcare.
Our primary vision is to achieve social impact by reaching these people who don’t traditionally have access to hearing healthcare through our innovative mobile technology solutions.
The hearX Group has gone to market with the award-winning HearScreen (flagship) product while many more innovative products are currently in research & development or beta implementation stages.
Our innovative solutions have been used to screen over 150 000 people in 25 countries across the world and are as accurate, but faster, cheaper and easier to use than traditional methods. hearX is a supplier of medical devices and is ISO 13485 certified and therefore our main area of expertise is the mobile healthcare industry. We believe in impact-driven innovation at an individual, community and global level by creating sustainable, smart solutions for hearing health. Our point-of-care mHealth solutions provide clinical tests, with integrated cloud-based data management, surveillance and referral systems that link patients to care. Our vision is healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere.
What market gap did you spot that motivated you to start the company?
There is a great need to identify hearing loss early in life. If identified early, many interventions can be performed to improve learning and socialising. If identified too late, or not at all, it could lead to school failures and inhibit a person’s development to their full potential. Underserved communities are especially affected, and we wanted to provide a cost-effective, user friendly solution to ensure hearing healthcare for everyone, everywhere.
Currently, there are no other solutions in the market solving the problem our solution addresses. Solutions presently employed do not reach the majority of the population at a grassroots level. Clinical and traditional solutions are not meeting the requirements in our African market since they are prohibitively expensive and static, hence unable to assist with decentralised screening projects. What makes hearScreen revolutionary is the fact that the product works on a smartphone. Due to the mobile and flexible nature of hearScreen, it’s suitable to be taken to any environment to operate. In order to use the device, the user only needs to have access to the relevant calibrated hardware along with the device subscription accessible via mobile data. This has given hearScreen the ability to be transported and operated in various robust areas. This functionality enables community workers, in collaboration with hearScreen to embark on projects locally and internationally to screen the hearing of communities.
How has uptake been like since you launched?
To date we have provided hearing and vision care services to more than 150 000 persons across 25 countries globally through our technology in low and middle income countries around the globe, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. At least half of these have been young preschool and school aged children for whom hearing and vision loss are leading contributors to academic failures. Other vulnerable groups benefiting directly from our technology are patients with multidrug resistant TB who are on medications that cause hearing loss. Our technology is used in more than 20 countries to monitor hearing in these patients to inform treatment to avoid hearing loss. Other areas of impact include preventative occupational health hearing testing in the industry sector.
Who is your major competition? What do you do different to distinguish yourself from them?
Currently, there are no other solutions in the market solving the problem our solution addresses. Solutions presently employed do not reach the majority of the population at a grassroots level. Clinical and traditional solutions are not meeting the requirements in our African market since they are prohibitively expensive and static, hence unable to assist with decentralised screening projects. hearScreen primarily has two competitors in the market who also specialise in offering mobile hearing screening solutions, however our solution is significantly more affordable, mobile, accurate that these alternative solutions.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced since the inception of the company?
We lack geographical support infrastructure to assist with calibrations and training, we therefore need partners in identified territories to assist with our ongoing expansion and scaling. We can improve the user interface and experience of our products to be more intuitive. We plan on introducing more visuals queues, which will help with the intuitiveness. We’ve also had to face challenges with regards to navigating the legal landscapes in the regions we’d like to expand into.
What advice would you wish to share with aspiring African entrepreneurs?
Africa has proven itself as fertile ground to disruptive entrepreneurial startups with the potential to have widespread scalable social impact for its people. Innovation from necessity as a key driver of entrepreneurship on the continent makes the solutions uniquely pragmatic and applied in their scope. Being an African entrepreneur is therefore especially rewarding, exciting but also very challenging. Apart from having a clear value-proposition, entrepreneurship requires headstrong persistence and stamina to build success stories. To keep focussed and enthusiastic we’ve built the company around a big vision for social impact. This ensures our mission is clear and can be operationalised, but also helps to keep us inspired to push harder.