South Korea’s hearing-impaired population is growing every year. According to the National Health Insurance Service, the number of people getting medical treatment due to a hearing loss has expanded 5 percent annually in the past five years. Accordingly, the demand for hearing aids is also rising.
Sonova Group, the world’s leading firm in hearing aid, releases various products every year through its Korean branch, to compete with local providers of hearing solutions. Sonova also owns a hearing aid manufacturer, Phonak.
This year, Phonak plans to unveil new products armed with advanced technologies in Korea. Like the first one, the company on Monday launched new hearing aid Audio B-Direct, using a revolutionary chip called “SWORD.”
Leonard Marshall, vice president of Nosova Asia Pacific, shared Phonak’s corporate vision and his views on the hearing aid market in Korea, in a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review. He visited Korea for the Adeo B-Direct launching event. Marshall joined Sonova 10 years ago, after working for Roche Diagnostics.
Question: Your company is releasing new products every year. How significant is the company’s investment in research and development?
|Leonard Marshall, vice president of Nosova Asia Pacific, speaks during an interview with Korea Biomedical Review about how his company will tap the hearing market in Korea.|
Answer: Sonova invests 7 percent of the total revenue in R&D. The company is focusing on the continual development of products. If possible, we try to apply new technology to our products and release a new product as soon as possible. The two-thirds of the global revenue comes from sales of the products that were launched in the past two years.
Q: What is Korea’s position in the Asia Pacific and how do you assess the marketability in the country?
A: Countries in Asia, along with Australia, China, and Japan. In assessing marketability, we consider the growth rate of the senior population compared to the size of the total population, the government policies and the size of the reimbursements, economic power, and technological power. We also look at the ratio of the hearing aid users among the hearing-impaired people. For example, in China, the number of hearing aid users is small, despite the large population with hearing loss. But in Australia, the government’s support for the elderly is well established so that people can get a hearing aid for free. The ratio of hearing aid users to the total population is high in Australia. Korea is in between China and Australia.
Q: Australia’s policies are interesting. Can you tell us more?
A: Australia has a voucher system. Pension recipients get vouchers, and they can get a hearing aid at a clinic with the coupons. To purchase a hearing aid, they need a diagnosis and post management. All those costs are covered by the Australian government. We also call it an “expensive policy.” I heard in Korea, President Moon Jae-in’s government focuses more on welfare and plans to expand the support for the population aged more than 65. (The policy is called “Mooncare” here.) I don’t know whether the government will carry out the policy, but I hope for change.
Q: Audio B-Direct has already achieved a big success in Australia and North America, before launching in Korea. What are the strong points of the product?
A: It is the first product that applied Sonova’s innovative “SWORD” chip. The chip can be used for both iPhone and Android-operated smartphones. The chip will be included in all of our upcoming products.
Audio B-Direct supports Bluetooth Classic Protocol, available for any Bluetooth-enabled phone. The product transmits the phone and TV sounds wirelessly, which is more convenient to use. Installing a single “TV Connector” enables multiple users of the hearing aid to watch TV together.
Q: Other multinational hearing aid providers recently established R&D centers in Korea. They are making networks with the medical community. Does Sonova have a similar plan?
A: We have R&D centers in Shanghai and Beijing in China. This year, we plan to have another one in Japan. In Australia, we’re having an R&D partnership with a university. Although we don’t have a plan to build an R&D center in Korea, those in China are not just for China. Sonova uses European technologies, which have some difficulty in grasping Asian languages. In fact, we cannot catch the Korean sound of “ㅆ” (sounding as ‘ss’) and “ㅌ”(‘t’) well. So, we are studying this kind of difficulties.
Q: What is the philosophy in Sonova’s hearing aids?
A: The purpose of a hearing aid is to help people understand each other in a noisy environment. Raising the volume of a device in a crowded environment does not always work. How to reduce the noise is the core technology. Plus, the hearing aid should look good. Rather than trying to hide it, we should make it more colorful with a better design. I think it will be good to apply Internet-based devices to a hearing aid. We are also researching how to adjust the volume wirelessly – we call it “fitting.”
Q: Koreans hardly recognize the name of Sonova Group or Phonak. Do you think you need a strategy to boost the recognition of your brand?
A: Of course, I do. Specializing in hearing aid, Sonova has acquired many companies so far. Phonak is one of them. The company’s business encompasses various areas including artificial cochlea implants. I think we are at a stage where we should introduce what Sonova Group does and which products Phonak offer. We can’t do this in a short period but fortunately, Sonova is a well-known company in the world. We will keep communicating with various clients including doctors, patients, and audiologists.
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