Chairman of “Big Six” hearing research consortium discusses its goals

By David H. Kirkwood

LAKE TAHOE, CA—In an unprecedented development in the hearing industry, the world’s six largest manufacturers of hearing aids have joined together to establish the Hearing Industry Research Consortium (IRC). GN ReSound, Oticon, Phonak, Siemens Hearing Solutions, Starkey Hearing Technologies, and Widex formed the consortium to develop and direct a non-competitive, mutually agreed upon research agenda for the benefit of the hearing aid industry, its customers, and the consumers who use its products.

Among the strategies the IRC will employ in reaching its goals is identifying research topics, initiating requests for proposals (RFPs) in topic areas, and funding appropriate proposals. It will also support educational initiatives, such as research conferences, and create research consortium position papers and conference presentations.

The IRC’s first action, announced last month at the International Hearing Aid Research Conference (IHCON) in Lake Tahoe, was to issue an RFP from research labs around the world to investigate the interaction of cognition and hearing aids. The consortium will award a $300,000 grant to the winning proposal, which will be announced by the end of 2012.

Applications are available on the IRC web site, and the deadline for submitting proposals is November 1.

 

CHAIRMAN DISCUSSES THE CONSORTIUM

Graham Naylor

In an interview with Hearing News Watch, Graham Naylor, PhD, chairman of the board of the IRC, discussed the consortium’s aims. He explained, “By taking a united approach, we believe it will be possible to pursue research areas that we can’t do with the piecemeal approach in which each company does its own research.”

The IRC board consists of the heads of research of the member companies. Along with Naylor, they are GN ReSound’s Andrew Dittberner, PhD; Phonak’s Stefan Launer, PhD; Joel Beilin, MScEE, of Siemens Hearing Solutions; Starkey Hearing Technologies’ Brent Edwards, PhD; and Lars Sunesen, PhD, of Widex.

The chairmanship alternates each year in alphabetical order by the name of the company. Hence, Dittberner of GN ReSound was the first chairman, and Phonak’s Launer will succeed Naylor next year.

Naylor, who is director of Eriksholm, Oticon’s research center in Elsinore, Denmark, added that the research developed by the IRC is intended to supplement, not supplant, the proprietary research that the six member companies conduct in their own labs.

He said that the idea of the “big six” hearing aid companies cooperating in research has been under discussion for a couple of years. The heads of research all know each other, he said, and “we often meet on neutral ground,” such as conferences like IHCON. He continued, “We agreed that it would be a good idea to have somewhere that we could put forward a research agenda.” From that emerged the concept of an industry research consortium.

Naylor said the research that the IRC fosters would focus on areas in which the findings would be of potential value to all six companies. He said, “It will not involve specific hearing aid technology that would be of more value to one company than to another.”

For this reason, he said, in making requests for proposals, the IRC is likely to select basic research topics, such as this year’s. But, he said,  proposals for applied research would not necessarily be precluded.

Manufacturers do conduct some basic research, often in concert with universities and other independent, non-profit organizations, and they publish many of their findings. However, Naylor noted, research supported by the IRC will offer advantages over that conducted in company research labs, which may carry “an implication of commercialism.”

He explained that IRC-funded projects will result in “more comfortable relationships for academic research centers because the proposals will be coming from the research centers, not from the manufacturers.”

Since laboratories have until November 1 to respond to the consortium’s request for proposals, it’s too soon to say what kind of submissions it will attract. But, said Naylor, “We hope people will come forward with proposals that are broader than we would undertake as individual companies.” He added, “There was a very positive response from attendees at IHCON that hearing aid manufacturers are moving together on this.”

 

WHAT OUTCOMES?

Asked what results he anticipates from the formation of the IRC, Naylor said, “Hopefully, it will send a signal to the research community that the hearing industry sees that there is a need for and a benefit from scientific research in various areas.”

He added that the resulting research could have various types of impact, including improvements in diagnosis, hearing devices, and professional practices, or it could affect public opinion and policy through improved understanding of the fundamental problems caused by hearing impairment.

He cautioned against expecting immediate results from the research, explaining, “It will not affect hearing aids or professional practices today or tomorrow. We’re looking for findings that will be of benefit to practitioners and users sometime in the future.”