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The original inspiration for Thomas Kaufmann’s hearing-assistance technology company and what it is today are somewhat paradoxical.

Kaufman was living in Santa Barbara when he founded OTOjOY  – the name is derived from the Greek word for “ear” and a play on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” A photographer friend who did a lot of live music shows told Kaufmann about how he was unable to use traditional ear plugs because he needed to hear the music and, as a result, his ears were ringing after shows.

Kaufmann, a native of Germany, showed his friend a pair of custom ear plugs that were popular in Europe but nearly nonexistent in the U.S. These plugs muffled background noise yet allowed clear sound without the punishing volume. Friends suggested Kaufmann start a business that sold these plugs. And in 2012, OTOjOY was born but with a different objective.

“I started the business to help people not loose their hearing. Now, it’s kind of the opposite,”  Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann’s business sold the ear plugs, but his work, research and deeper involvement in the hearing-device community connected Kaufmann with organizations that helped people with hearing disabilities. That’s when his business model took a 180-degree turn.

Technology makes hearing easier

Several months later, OTOjOY’s focus shifted to hearing-loop technology and equipping theaters, concert halls, churches, conference halls, city council chambers and even outdoor music festivals with it.

The technology connects into a venue’s sound system and allows a hearing aid or cochlear implant to pick up its wireless signal. The result is a clear and direct sound delivered to the ear directly from the sound system, creating an experience as if the listener were sitting on stage next to the artist or presenter.

Typically, attendees with hearing loss would need to ask the box office for receivers that come with attachments that enables their aid or implant to receive the transmitted sound. And that’s just half the battle.

“They have to ask someone, figure out how to use this and wear this thing. If they’re lucky, the venue will have receivers available, they are charged and they work,” Kaufmann said. “It’s a huge hassle. Many don’t go to shows. They become more isolated and miss out on life.”

Kaufmann’s entrepreneurial effort has led to client list of more than 250 venues in California and Arizona. Company revenue has doubled each year, he said.

Most clients have a capacity of 300-500 seats. Depending on the size of the venue, the average cost runs $5,000-$10,000, Kaufmann said. He outfitted the Santa Barbara Bowl, which seats about 4,500, for $100,000.

Moving to Phoenix

He moved OTOjOY’s headquarters to Phoenix because he wanted to take his venture to a larger city. While visiting the Valley for the first time two years ago, Kaufmann viewed it from an accessibility angle and noticed how much of the city was built since ADA was in place, making it relatively easy to get around. It was a win-win and an appropriate spot to introduce hearing advancements.

Kaufmann’s company has a growing worldwide audience. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 900 million people — or one in every 10 people — will have disabling hearing loss.

As the board president for the Adult Loss of Hearing Association in Tucson, Karl Hallsten has worked to promote hearing-loop technology for years. He was attending an Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing event at which OTOjOY did the work of looping tents. Hallsten had been previously told this was impossible.

Since then, Hallsten has been collaborating with Kaufmann on their mutual mission. Hallsten has bilateral cochlear implants. When he was using a hearing aid, Hallsten would get 12 words out of 100, he said. When in a venue with the loop, he would get 80 words.

He described his first experience using the hearing loop. It was at his association’s conference room and it was hosting a support group.

“The sound, it was so strong and clear,” he said. “The sound comes directly to our ears so not passing around the room.”

Kaufmann said the challenge is convincing more venues to buy into the technology, which is legislated more diligently in Europe. In the U.S, he said grassroots advocacy propels the movement. In addition to touting the benefits for the audience member, Kaufmann must also raise a potential impact on the venue’s bottom line, as in selling more tickets to events and shows.

“It’s about educating venues of the benefits of the technology. It’s also about inclusion. There is a large group of  people who weren’t able to come and enjoy the shows. You want people to be included, not limited by their physical ability,” he said.

Cost friendly for businesses 

FilmBar owner Kelly Aubey had always wanted to offer a more enhanced experience for those with hearing loss but the costs made it impossible. Six months ago a mutual friend introduced him to Kaufmann, whose solution was more affordable and not as clunky or invasive as the other options.

“(The technology) was quite cost effective and a graceful solution because it works with technology most hearing aids have,” Aubey said.

The installation — a process that runs a wire around the venue — took less than three hours. As the first cinema in the Valley to have this technology and the second in the state, Aubey said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and moviegoers are surprised in a great way.

When asked if installing the loop has made a difference in ticket sales, Aubey didn’t know. It’s not a statistic he’s pursued or one that interests him.

“It’s not why I did it,” said Aubey, who noticed people getting teary-eyed while using the technology. “Sometimes you do something because it’s the right thing to do.”

The entrepreneurial bug bit Kaufmann early. He started his first business — a booking agency for DJ’s and musicians — in Germany at 18. He holds a masters degree in physics from the University of Bonn and has experience working at a patent law firm.

An internship at the University of California-Santa Barbara brought him to the States. He graduated with a chemistry degree but missing his music business caused him to abandon his initial plan for a PhD in chemistry.

The result is OTOjOY, which allows him to indulge a lifelong passion for music and his entrepreneur streak.

Opening technology to individuals 

Recently, Kaufmann invented LoopBuds, which are earphones that give access to crystal-clear speech and music during concerts and lectures. The $75 devices plug into a smartphone, and an app connects to any hearing-loop system worldwide. This was his way of opening up the venue technology to individuals. It’s also for those who may not have a diagnosed hearing disability, but are hard of hearing.

OTOjOY has won a number of awards for its work, the most recent being the Consumer Technology Association’s 2018 CES Innovation Award for LoopBuds. 

Kaufmann does not suffer from hearing loss, nor is he hard of hearing. His passion for music is a motivator. However, he has noticed another positive by-product that has nothing to with hearing but much to do with sound.

Kaufman described himself as being “on the mild end of the spectrum” where he struggles with sensory overload. It goes unnoticed by others but noise sensitivity coupled with too much of it takes a toll.

Kaufmann uses assisted hearing at concerts, conferences or any other speaking event. Not only to keep testing his products but also because he discovered getting a cleaner signal from presenters and the removal of extra noise and distraction leaves him more relaxed and less on edge and irritable. He’s working with organizations and pursuing grants to provide his aids for those with autism spectrum disorders.

He also collaborates with the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as part of his ongoing objective to add another dimension to the world of those who struggle with hearing it.

“When someone is hearing a concert for the first time, the range of facial expressions across the board … their jaw drops, their eyes get big, even tears, because they haven’t heard this quality of sound for years, decades or ever,” Kaufmann said. “Seeing how much of a difference this makes in people’s lives. … It keeps me going.”

OTOjOY

WHERE: 221 E. Indianola Ave., Phoenix

EMPLOYEES: Six

INTERESTING STAT: More than 5 percent of the world’s population – 466 million people – has disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization.

MORE INFORMATION: 480-526-5381, otojoy.com.

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