Direct to Consumer Hearing Care: Interview with Orka Co-Founder, Xinke Liu

orka hearing aids
March 11, 2023
This week, host Andrew Bellavia is joined by Xinke Liu, co-founder of direct-to-consumer hearing aid company, Orka. The company was founded in 2018 with the aim of creating a more user-friendly and accessible hearing aid experience.
Liu explains that a convergence of factors made it the right time to start Orka, such as the passage of the OTC legislation, enhanced technological capabilities, and her own personal experience struggling with hearing loss. Orka hearing aids are available online and once ordered, customers then work with a remote audiologist to program them for their specific hearing loss.

Full Episode Transcript

[Andy] Hello, and

thanks for tuning in to This Week in

Hearing. Today I have with me Xinke Liu

the co-founder of Orka that’s O-R-K-A, a

new entrant in the direct to consumer

hearing aid space with remote care,

Xinke welcome and thanks for joining me.

Please tell us about yourself and how

you and your co-founder Ben Sun chose to

start a hearing aid company.

[Xinke] thank you so much for having me Andy so

hi hi there everyone my name is

Xinke Liu and

I’ve been a long time hearing aid user. I

actually used hearing aids for about seven

years before switching to cochlear

implant. So

in 2018 my co-founder Ben Sun, uh, Ben Sun

found me and at that time he was

witnessing his grandmother struggling

with hearing aids and so he was a product

engineer at Apple

back then so he thought this

shouldn’t be it like this product

ought to be like better- like more user

friendly and

better to use them more accessible so

he convinced me, Chauncey, and Linkai

our other two co-founders to join him on

this journey to build a hearing product

from scratch.

So it has been about almost five years now,

– OK, and where were you at the

time, you were studying in the United

States at that time is that correct?

– Yes I was doing my master’s degree in

Palo Alto so that’s why I was in Silicon


– Okay, and why do you think this is the

right time to start Orka why now and

what makes the circumstances of today

more fortunate for starting a new

hearing aid company?

– Well, for me the choice was rather no

brainer because my experience

with hearing loss

span over like half of my life lifetime

so it’s been 15 years now and but for my

co-founders they think it’s a good time

to start building a hearing aid from scratch.

It’s because of the

I think it’s like the converging

point of technology that we have

available now and also the because of

the OTC by then at

in 2017


President Trump has already signed the

OTC bill- oh it wasn’t

I don’t know how that thing worked but

we already know about the OTC bill by then

we know it’s going to be in effect in

2020 and at that time we see hearables,

airpods and more tws hearables come to

the market. We do see that the general

chip is becoming more powerful and it

seems really promising of

carrying the um

the AI and deep learning anyway it just

seemed like a really good starting point

it to do seem like a good time to start

doing the thing we’re doing now. Bec…



from me it was more like a gruge I’ve

been holding too long to the industry

like it has always been a very

frustrating ex… journey For me

navigating the hearing aid

products, the journey so when Ben

asked me if I wanted to join I said of

course because it really felt like fate

calling at some point because I’ve

always wanted a better product, a better

customer service, a better like customer

journey, so I kind of like been waiting

for long I mean I remember when I was in

undergrad I saw that Google was

trying to make the Google Glass and it

seemed promising and carry out the live


but we’re having that now all right now

already like with our Zoom meeting like we

have the live transcript but back then

in college because I was struggling I

really hope like some big companies like

Google or Apple all carry out like maybe

find a solution to for people with

hearing loss like live transcribe or

something else or maybe just what they

are sort of doing now but I’ve been

waiting long enough at that point in

2018 so I thought yeah I really

shouldn’t be waiting anymore I should

you know just start to do it and maybe

sort of like scratch my own itch

that’s what I thought back then like

four years, four or five years ago yeah.

– Okay so a lot of factors really

converged in the U.S. the coming of the

OTC legislation the technical capability

and your own personal journey. That’s


So all the forces came together now

we’ve we’ve talked about the OTC

legislation in the U.S and I know part

of your experience and your desire to

create a different journey for people

also comes from your experience in China.

Where do you plan to serve, what markets

is Orka serving today and what markets

do you intend to serve in the future?

– Well right now we’re we’re only serving

the U.S. market what in future we do

plan to serve more parts of the world

like China definitely but we make the

market decision as it is right now

because United States is a better- better

place to start because the customers are

a little bit more experienced in the

United States. I mean the market

penetration rate is low all across the

world it’s like 30 something 30 percent in the

United States but in China is like

six percent only. So it’s really low in

China at this point so if we want to

serve China right now that would-

we that will need a lot of efforts

and like consumer education and

everything like that so right now we’re

only serving the United States because

the customers in the United States are

more familiar with the products, with the

category so you guys actually know

what you want, what you’re looking for so

you would not- so it’s something like

managing customer expectation like you

already know what the product is, what

you want from it, it’s easier that way

for us to serve the customers and it’s

also a mutual

relationship I guess because for- for

a young company like us we need

customers who can give us like very

useful feedback so we can you use this

feedback and to improve our products in

the same time.

– Okay, okay, it’s interesting that you say

people in the United States know what

they want. We’re going to explore that

little bit in the context of how the

Orka hearing aid is designed and I’ll

say that I tried the hearing aid and I

can see you’ve put a lot of effort into

developing an effective solution for

those who want to purchase hearing aids

online, and I also see it – Thank you

– Your welcome. I also see it in line with what

you just said about people knowing what

they want that the design of the Orka

reflects different ways of thinking

about how a direct to consumer product can

be successful, and I’d like to break that

down a little bit starting with the form


because in this space most people are

designing either the RIC form

factor or earbud form factor and you’ve

chosen the RIC.

What in your mind are the pros and cons

of designing a RIC hearing aid vs.

an earbud hearing aid?

– Well actually when we’re thinking about

the form factor at first we did consider

going the earbud route but after

doing some research we realized it- we

don’t want to force a disruptive change

on the customer. I mean we want the

innovation to be subtle so the customers

would not have to worry about like

the social cues because with the

earbud form factor

it’s sending a message to other

people saying that I don’t want to talk

to you right now, that’s the

thing with the earbud and actually

the cons of the way

the RIC style is

it’s actually more difficult to develop


RIC style

hearing aid because it’s more

complicated when it comes to design and

manufacture but we do want our customers

to feel comfortable in both in wearing

them and bring the RIC style is more


if you want to wear it for like 10 or

12 hours a day so ,that’s why we come

down to the decision what we want to put

customers first not technology first.

– Okay, okay, and so then what I’m hearing

is that you felt there’s less stigma

wearing the RIC design in social

settings than earbuds -Yeah -That also the

RIC is more comfortable for very long

wearing times.

– Right.

– Okay, and I know one of the important

things, one of the important design

considerations you made was to use a

general purpose processor chip rather

than a dedicated hearing aid chip.

Tell me how you made- why you made that

decision, were there any compromises

associated with that decision, and

why did you choose to do so.

– Sure, absolutely. So the thing with the

specialized chip it has a long

history in the hearing industry it’s

great for power saving and the

specialized chips of design specifically

for hearing aid use so

that it’s extremely efficient but the

thing, the downside of specialized chips

is that


because these chips are made

specifically for hearing aids use- the

market for it as you can see it’s not so

big, not as big as that of like hearables

TWS. The thing with that is

they have a really slow iteration

cycle so these specialized chips are


are improved or- revolution- changes like

every probably like four to five years

but the thing with general chips is that

they are

iterated on a like cycle of about six to

12 months.

With that- with the general chips

the downside is obvious as

well. Like it’s- it’s not as power

efficient as that of specialized chips

yeah, but general chips are more

versatile and they’re used in various

products, and it’s more- it’s easier for

us to try different features if we want

and also the thing with general chips is

that the- you don’t- it’s, it’s you can

still send upgrades to the users

when they got the products home, I mean

with specialized chips most of the

functions are defined before

manufactured, in manufacturers so there’s

not much you can change about it after

being manufactured but the thing with

general chips that you can still make

some modifications to the features and

you can still send like


upgrades to the customers over the air so

it’s more versatile in that way but the

thing as the downside is as I mentioned

is the power- it’s not as power efficient

as that of the specialized- specialized

chip-made hearing aids. Just not yet so

with our products you only get like 12

hours per charge but to offset

that problem we do have the recharging

case as a portable charger so we also

get this

charge boost option so if you put

your hearing aids back into the the

charging case for like 10 minutes you get

an actual 90 minutes of hearing. So I

think that’s enough for for our

customers to go through the day and, but

I do understand it’s not for everyone

and I also I think the customers

sometimes a little bit

too concerned about the power usage

because I’ve tracked my, both my

hearing usage and my cochlear implant



for the year and the average time I use

them is about

7.6 hours a day. I take them off a lot

during the daytime you know just to have

some quiet time to myself and we did do


consumer behavioral research and some

people do take their hearing aids off

during the day, you know, just to relax a

bit. I don’t know if you have that same


– Well, it’s interesting that you say that

because when I was working for Knowles

in the office every day I would get 16

or 18 hours of wear. If I looked at the-

looked at the statistics in my app it

was always around 16 hours.

Because I was in the office all day so I

never took them out, and I would wear

them when I went home, and if I went out,

I would get a, you know, I’d get up early

and do some things and I would put them

in. I would also listen to podcasts or,

you know, that sort of thing. Do all my

Zoom meetings through them, in

fact I’m listening to you through my

hearing aids right now.

So I was easily logging 16 hours but now

that I work from home with my own

company, I’m the same like you, if if my

first meeting isn’t until 10 in the

morning I don’t put them until 10

in the morning.

So I understand, you know, how- I

understand that way of working as you

say the present state of process or

development isn’t quite there to support

all day life

but in exchange for that you get the

flexibility and the over the air

updating, and faster design cycle times.

So that makes a lot of sense, and we’ll

talk about it more a little bit later

but of course that’s only going to

improve over time. -Sure.

– I also want to talk a bit about the

user experience because you’re a direct

to consumer product. Lead me through

the whole customer journey from the

moment the customer learns about Orka

and visits the website.

How does the customer journey progress

until they’re using hearing aids?

– Yeah sure. They come to our website they they can do a

hearing test on our website because some people are not

sure if our product is right for them.

So this this hearing test-

web-based hearing tests online and but

that’s- that’s for the customers to find

out if they- if Orka is right for them

at this point, and they can go see all of

our products and right now we offer 21

day free trial program that this

absolutely there’s no money down so they can

just try our products so after they

order the products they are asked to

schedule an appointment with

our audiologists, in that way we can

prepare the

customer and find out like this

product is really for them. I mean we

really don’t want to waste the customers

time or in a way that

because you know some people when

they’ve- if they are trying out the

product for the first time and they

don’t like it or they would say maybe

that’s what all hearing aids are like and I

would probably give up on that point or

just postpone their hearing journey

for another several years. We don’t want

that to happen and so we strongly advise


customers to schedule the appointment

with our customer service team or

with the audiologists even before they

receive our products. And after they

receive our products there is a quick

start guide in the box that could lead

the customer through the whole journey

but if you don’t want to like navigate

all the process yourself you can also

schedule an unboxing appointment with

our audiologist, and that way there’s

someone to guide you through the whole

process so

they are there to help you set up the

Bluetooth connectivity a connection and

everything else but if you want to do

that that’s okay as well because the

point is we want users to play with the

products and to just try them out use it

and keep carefree and

but if you do schedule the appointment

with our audiologists you can, as you have

tried with our hearing aid, you had that in

situ hearing test and according to Andy,

our hearing test results is close to

your prescription results, is that


– Yes actually that when I, when I ran it-

When I ran the hearing test to my on my

own like I would with a self-fitting

hearing aid it came out pretty close but

what you’re saying is you’re not

encouraging people to self-fit them even

though the app is capable, you’d much

prefer them to work online with one of

your audiologists, is that correct?

– Yes I mean we

right now Orka is not going self-fit

Just yet- Oh I mean you can definitely

play with it but we would strongly

advise our customer to get an

appointment with our audiologists

because the thing with hearing loss is

that oftentimes we don’t know what we

are missing out on so when there’s a

professional to guide you through the

whole process this is a better chance

that people can get the most out of

our products. I mean the audiologist is

there to tell the customer like what to

expect in the first day or months and

maybe the first six months, so in that

way the customers can- in that way-

because we’re trying to ease our

customers into the hearing journey so

we don’t want anyone to just like try

them for

three to five days and think, ah this is

not for me so just give up on it or

maybe just store it in the drawer or it

well, it will actually be better if they

don’t want it and send it

back to us because in that way the

customers are not wasting any money so

we don’t want anyone to just buy

our products and not use it. We’re not

going that way, so that’s why we have

this remote audiology team here

to guide the customers through the

whole journey.

Okay, so I could order them with the

21 day trial and begin the onboarding

journey immediately, and so even before

the return period is over I’ve spoken

with an audiologist, they’ve helped me

get it set up, they’ve helped me fit

the hearing aids to my hearing loss

profile, and I can have some time to get

experience with the hearing aids even

before the 21 days are finished.

Is that correct?

Yeah, yeah, that is correct so right now we have

only 21 days free trial is because we found

that if people want to keep it they

would decide- actually maybe like two

weeks in they already know what they

want but if they are like

I don’t want to use this maybe like

three or four days

after the trial started they would give

up on that point so right now we think

the 21 days trial is,

is right for both customers and Orka

at this stage.

– Okay, and then assuming they decide to

keep the hearing aids, they’re satisfied

with the initial experience, tell me

about continuing care options how does

it work?

– So the thing is you know in the past

if you have- if you go out to a

restaurant, a dining-out restaurant, and you think

my hearing is not working well but I

can’t tell like what’s not going on well,

and maybe before you make a mental note

and try to remember to tell your

audiologist when your next appointment

with them coming up

that usually would take like weeks or

even months, for me, so right now for our

customers they don’t have to wait that

long to get it adjusted they can just

call our remote audiology team even

right from the restaurant, they can

describe it to the audiologist like

what’s going on, I mean because I

think the thing with customers is that

not everyone can describe their problem


in the actual way. They would say, ah,

this doesn’t sound right but it really

needs the professionals to

like kind of like step by step and

ask people, oh how is this not selling

right, if I put it this way do you think

that’s what you’re hearing right now and

that’s how the communication goes, so

now we want our customers to get help

whenever they want it so which, it’s

actually 7-24 hour customer service on

our side so hopefully that will make

things easier for customers for them to

get the most out of it.

– Okay so you have audiologists in the

United States who are on call 24-7. -Right

– Is that a an extra charge service,

is there a limited time? -No, no, everything

comes free with the products.

– Okay, so as long as I own the hearing aid

I have access to that service? -Correct.

Oh interesting, interesting, okay


And I gather then since you’re-

you’ve chosen deliberately not to go for

self-fitting because you want people to

be under an audiologist’s care,

and I suppose then that it informs the

decision to register as a classic

prescription hearing aid rather than an

over-the-counter hearing aid. Do I

understand that correctly? -Yes.

– Okay, okay

– That’s just for now I mean, Orka we

are totally in all support for

OTC legislation I think it’s such a

great thing. I mean the customers will,

the customers in general will be

taking all the are the advantage of

more options, more access to different

kind of products and, I think it’s okay

if they just want to like try each for

like try different products from

different brands and until they find the

right one, but right now for Orka I think

at this point not going self-fit it’s

just trying to

give a beter experience for our customers.

– Okay, no that makes a lot of

sense and I completely understand your

logic there, of course you can you can

you can be a self-fit hearing aid and

still offer backup support from an

audiologist too. -Right.

– But I understand your approach.

Now this is a question related

specifically to the U.S. market and that

was since you’re doing remote audiology

telecare, how difficult was it to

understand and meet the various state

requirements for telehealth in the

United States, because it can be a bit of,

a bit of a difficult environment to work

in. So how difficult was that for you in

order to be able to establish telehealth

throughout the United States and

understand the rules that go with it?

– Well,

right now we have an in-house legal to administer

and to navigate us through on that,

the different regulation in a different

state, so and the thing about

a young company is that there’s not much

problems. It’s not as many customers

right now so we’re doing okay and in

terms of like different state and

different regulations right now.

– Okay so in other words what you’re saying is

that the different state regulations

weren’t a big impediment for a young

company such as yourself to enter this

Market. -Just not yet.

– Okay not yet because

because you’re not serving so much of

the area yet in other words.

– Right, right and we also have a legal team

in-house to help us through that process

so we’re not worrying too much about

that yet.

– Okay, okay. You know, we talked about

general chips and I heard Ben Sun talk about

general chips in a different podcast

he did, and

you know we understand where the

situation is today but what is your

thinking about the future how how soon

do you think it will be before general

purpose chips have the same

functionality and power efficiency as a

hearing aid chip, and how do you think

that’s going to affect the hearing aid

market in the future when general

purpose chips can do the same job?

– I think in that sense one

our projection is about like three to

four years I mean I’m not an engineer

myself but I did a lot of research

and our co-founders and our engineers

at Orka


told me about that, so they did the

projection so it’s about three to four

years and what I think


in the future people would have more

access from start to end, and the

the, how do I put it? Like the earbud form or

the OTC form of

hearing aids would be in- abandoned

sort like people like before if you

wanted to try out hearing aids you will

really wait a long time but right now

with more like earbuds or with airpods

like and more like just

phone apps people could try it out very

fast if they think, if they suspect oh I

think my husband have some hearing

problem or I think my grandma probably

need one, I can I can just give them my

airpods or just my earbuds and for them

to try out the hearing aid function

that’s available on these products, and

if the if the earbuds and the airpods

thing are not enough to serve them, that

could lead them,

that could

lead them quickly into the next phase

that is professional hearing aids

products, and beyond that there is

cochlear implants as well which is

what I’m using now. So in the future I

think the thing about

OTC, general chips and everything

involved is that the users would go a

more smooth journey from

earbuds to hearing aids and if necessary

beyond. And that will make things easier

for the customers. I mean the thing with

me, I mean maybe I’m just speaking

for my own experience because I don’t

pay visit to the audiologist. I mean even

today the last time I went to the

audiologist is

was like three or four years ago. I don’t

like that. I just don’t like that. I don’t

like spending like 90 to-

90 minutes there and have to reschedule

that appointment maybe just in three

months or six months, so I just skip them

all. So in the future I do want the

journey to adopting hearing aids is much

easier for the customers, so I think

that’s where the technology is leading

us to a better customer experience.

– Okay so better customer experience and

also broader accessibility seems to be

what you’re saying is the future. -Yeah

– Okay, and that’s actually a really good

conversation to have considering it’s

World Hearing Day as we have this


because the WHO’s theme for this

year’s World Hearing Day is “ear and

hearing care for all.”

So if you look beyond today where you’re

servicing just the United States, how

do you anticipate that the solutions

you’re developing and will develop in

the future

can be applicable in underserved areas

of the world where people live, for

example, in rural areas and do not have

access to an audiologist. Do you see your

solutions being able to play a role in

getting hearing care adopted sooner on

global basis?

– Yeah, absolutely I mean it might not be a solution

for all. That’s not not how it works but we do think

remote audiology will be able to like

serve more people wherever they live. I

mean that’s the thing- same thing as

probably in that’s also applicable in

other areas of

medicine like because the

surgery- surgical robotic- surgical robots

or something like that. I think it’s

the same thing like even for people in the rural

area they can still schedule the online

appointment with professionals, with

audiologists so that would serve them

all right and

yeah. I think it will definitely be

helpful in that way.

– Okay, okay, very good. Well this has been a

really interesting conversation Xinke, I really- I

appreciate you joining me today.

-Thank you.

– How can people learn more about Orka and

how can people reach out to you

personally if they like.

– So, you can just Google

Orka hearing aids, it’s

O-R-K-A. Actually I want to say a little

thing something about the name

because I coin it Orka because, yeah, yeah,

I’m proud of it. So yeah because I

think was the thing with hearing aids is

that when you have hearing loss and you

don’t have any hearing devices even

the smallest tasks may be very

frustrating like getting coffee at



I want customers and myself to have

a control over life. I think the thing

with hearing aids is that it gives you a sense

of control like over life so I tracked

the etymology of like energy

and life, mostly energy in different

languages so I found Orka in Icelandic

and it means energy, energetic, and we

tested it with some friends in the

United States and they all responded

really well to it because

it’s the same sound of orca and we all

have loved that creature. So that’s we-

how we landed on Orka O-R-K-A and so if

you’re just Google Orka hearing aids and

Google- or you can find me on LinkedIn

it’s Xinke Liu

hopefully Andy will tag my name-

names so people can find me easily.

Xinke Liu from Orka, a link thing or

you can just email me it’s

[email protected].

– Well we’ll make sure both of those

are in the show notes.

– Thank you so much.

– No, thank you and I appreciate you

telling the story of the naming of the

hearing aid because my own experience,

actually China figures into my own

experience because pre-pandemic I

would travel to China quite often

usually in the Shenzhen area

and I would be gone for a couple of

weeks at a time, and because I don’t

speak Mandarin people would speak

English to me, you know, at different

levels of fluency and different

dialects, and by the end of

the two weeks I would be really, really

tired, and I just thought because these

are long trips, working all day, going out

to dinner with a customer or business

partner at night, and by the end of

the trip I would be very, very, tired. And

this is in the period before I got

hearing aids myself.

And the first time I did one of those

trips after getting my hearing aids I

had so much more energy.

Because my hearing loss progressed

slowly I didn’t realize how much energy

it cost to understand people

especially overseas when people are

speaking English differently and you’re

concentrating harder to understand.

And so, energy I think is a great name

because what getting hearing aids myself

gave me was more energy, more than

anything else.

– Yeah, absolutely, oh I think yeah, actually

I think I met you- I’ve seen you

before in Beijing did you come to
00:37:32,700 –> 00:37:37,260
Beijing like in 2019?

– I would have been in, probably would have

been in Beijing around that time too. I can’t

recall specifically anymore. You know

anything that happened before the

pandemic starts to feel like a distant memory.

-I know, I know, I know, but I do

share your experience with

like hearing- trying to hear people

particularly in a different- when you

are traveling abroad it’s really energy

consuming. I mean I had that experience. I

only realized how bad my hearing- how bad

my hearing ability was after I started

school in the United States because I

didn’t know back in China I was

constantly like lip reading. I didn’t

realize it, and because in China with

different dialects we always have

subtitles on when you go to movie

theater or when you’re just trying to

watch television. That after I went to

school in the United States I realized oh,

my lip reading just doesn’t work anymore

so I have to focus really hard on what

people are saying and, oh, that’s really

exhausting. So I do share your experience

on that. -In complete reverse (laughs).

– So I guess something is,

when people think they’re hearing,

they can still go by with the

hearing ability they have at that point,

they could just like try travel abroad

and find out no, it’s not working. Because

when you are at home you often fail to

notice how bad it is.

– Yeah that’s really quite true. Of course

you also notice that when you’re in loud

situations like restaurants. -Right.

– You have more and more difficulty hearing

people. So I think that’s a great way to

end this conversation, really the gift of

energy that that treating your hearing

loss gives you. So yeah, thanks for

sharing that in relationship to the

company name.

– Thank you so much.

– And thanks to everyone for listening to

this edition of this week in hearing.

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About the Panel

Andrew Bellavia is the Founder of AuraFuturity. He has experience in international sales, marketing, product management, and general management. Audio has been both of abiding interest and a market he served professionally in these roles. Andrew has been deeply embedded in the hearables space since the beginning and is recognized as a thought leader in the convergence of hearables and hearing health. He has been a strong advocate for hearing care innovation and accessibility, work made more personal when he faced his own hearing loss and sought treatment All these skills and experiences are brought to bear at AuraFuturity, providing go-to-market, branding, and content services to the dynamic and growing hearables and hearing health spaces.

Xinke Liu is the co-founder of Orka, a direct-to-consumer hearing aid company. Liu, who has been a hearing aid user for over 15 years, was inspired by her personal journey to create a better, more user-friendly hearing aid experience.

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