Hearing Healthcare 2020 is a column where we explore the forces behind the changing landscape and disruptions impacting the hearing healthcare industry.
This week, HHTM President and CEO, Kevin Liebe, interviews Andrew Song, the Co-Founder and President of Whisper. Earlier this month, his company launched its flagship product – the Whisper Hearing System, which is said to be a “first-of-its-kind learning hearing aid that improves over time”.
The Whisper Hearing System is now being offered through professional hearing clinics using a unique subscription model approach.
KL: To start, could you provide readers with some of your background and how you got interested in the hearing industry?
AS: I, along with my co-founders Dwight Crow and Shlomo Zippel, had a lot of experience in the tech sector prior to starting Whisper. Dwight and I met while working at Facebook, and Shlomo had a hardware background. All three of us had family members with hearing loss and saw the impact it had on their lives.
Seeing the everyday effects of hearing loss affect my grandfather was very eye opening for me. I like to say my grandfather is a “hearing aid owner” but not a “hearing aid user”. He had trouble adopting hearing aids, and this piqued my curiosity in the product category. The fact that his story is not unique was even more confounding to me. This inspired me to build a new kind of product: a device that didn’t just have great audio processing the day it was made, but one that could learn and actually get better over time.
All this being said, the story of Whisper isn’t the story of any one of us. It’s a team effort. Each person on our team has a personal connection to hearing care. We have teammates, parents and grandparents with hearing loss and want to use our expertise to create a hearing system that we’re proud to share with our loved ones.
KL: Can you please briefly explain what is included in a Whisper Hearing System and how the devices can be upgraded over time (is this done in office vs. at home, etc)?
AS: The Whisper Hearing System is designed from the ground up to learn and has a unique hardware configuration to drive the system. There are three components to the product:
- The Earpieces, which are worn on the ears so they can take in and transmit sound
- The Whisper Brain, which works wirelessly with the earpieces to enable our Sound Separation Engine and is the hub of the learning capabilities, and
- The Whisper mobile app, which delivers regular software upgrades in addition to allowing users to control their Whisper Hearing System from their phone.
The system learns and improves from additions to our proprietary AI model, work from our cutting edge software team, and the addition of new features. Once an upgrade is available, the system can be upgraded in-office by a hearing care professional or by the patient with the Whisper smartphone app.
KL: The Whisper model is very unique in hearing healthcare, where we haven’t really seen widespread adoption of any sort of subscription plans for devices or care. What was the motivation behind this decision?
AS: When you’re using a hearing aid that is learning over time, a monthly plan is a natural structure to use that people are already accustomed to from other devices and services.
As a hearing aid wearer, you are receiving an ongoing benefit from both the system upgrades as well as the ongoing care from a hearing professional. Paying for these benefits as they happen over time is very natural compared to the traditional payment scheme where you’re asked to pay thousands of dollars up front.
Moreover, a monthly plan lowers the barriers of entry for many people out there who need the best hearing technology possible but may not be able to spend thousands of dollars in one go.
KL: Unlike many industry startups that have pursued a Direct to Consumer (D2C) model, you decided on a more “traditional” approach of working directly with hearing professionals—arguably, a much more difficult task. What sort of reaction have you been seeing among the professional community?
AS: We are lucky to work with many different hearing care professionals and clinics across the US so far, and their reactions have been very encouraging.
We’re constantly bringing on new HCPs that want to bring a new technology to their practice and patients, and have been continuing to build strong relationships with our pre-launch trial sites.
KL: Among the biggest challenges for any hearing aid manufacturer is not only to create good products and technology, but to match that with equally good service and support. What sort of support do you provide consumers, as well as professional clinics?
AS: First, we have a dedicated sales and support team who supports our clinic partners through the whole partnership: onboarding, fitting and training, and post-sales support for their patients.
These professionals are the ones who are excited to bring new technology to their practice, and we are always looking forward to supporting them and helping in any way possible.
For consumers, great care starts with a great warranty support plan. Not only is the Whisper Hearing System covered by a three year manufacturers warranty, we also offer loss and damage protection coverage for three years.
But, the warranty is only a small part of how Whisper provides great support for consumers. For people considering the Whisper Hearing System, our Concierge team is available Monday – Friday 8 am to 5 pm PT to answer questions and to connect consumers to a hearing professional near them so they can try the product.
For people who already have the Whisper Hearing System, we have an ongoing Customer Care team which can provide end-user product support where needed.
KL: Is Whisper technology currently available across the US or just by region?
AS: Whisper is available at practices across the US.
KL: Professionals will certainly be curious whether there is a fee to offer Whisper hearing aids at their clinic, and considering the unique subscription model, how exactly does reimbursement work? Does Whisper handle the payments and then reimburse a portion to the hearing clinic?
AS: There is not a fee for hearing care professionals to offer the Whisper Hearing System at their clinics. Whisper handles the mechanics of the monthly billing with the end user, so the clinic does not need to do any special set up to be able to offer this new type of plan.
When a Whisper Hearing System is sold, the hearing care professional is paid in full upfront so they don’t have to worry about managing the monthly payments.
KL: Andrew, thanks for taking the time to offer some additional insights on the new Whisper system with our readers. Where can they go to learn more?
AS: Thank you! I’d encourage your readers to visit us at Whisper.ai.
Andrew Song is the Co-founder and President of Whisper. Andrew was formerly head of product for Facebook Messenger Core, which is used by over 1B people worldwide. A mathematics & computer science graduate from the University of Waterloo, Andrew is an expert in the advanced applications of artificial intelligence. He is a member of Sequoia Capital’s Scout program—aiding in the discovery and development of other high-potential companies.
Kevin Liebe, AuD, is President and CEO of Hearing Health & Technology Matters (HHTM). He also serves as a Scientific Advisor to Neosensory, a Silicon Valley based startup pioneering experiences in sensory augmentation. As an audiologist, Kevin has experience in variety of settings, including private practice, ENT, and industry. He is a past president and board member of the Washington State Academy of Audiology