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[INTERVIEW] Korean startup 'Olive Union' armed to overhaul hearing aid market

PUBLISHED : June 05, 2017 - 14:44

UPDATED : June 08, 2017 - 10:16

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[THE INVESTOR] Hearing aids are a basic necessity for people with listening disabilities, for more effective communication.

The thumbnail-sized devices, however, have seen little technical advancement for years despite the high price tag -- nearly two to three times more expensive than a premium smartphone and laptop with high-tech features.




The medical devices, which are supposed to make up for hearing loss, instead cause more trouble and discomfort.

Users need to visit an audiologist every time they want to adjust the audio frequency range and battery should be replaced regularly as it usually lasts for days or two weeks at best.

Seoul-based startup Olive Union says it hopes to become a game changer in the industry with an affordable smart hearing aid.

“We are like a misfit, or maverick, in the market,” said Owen Song, founder and CEO of the startup.

“A few hearing aid firms have long been dominating the sector, building close ties with doctors by handing out kickbacks as a sales strategy. That, however, hampered the growth of this segment for years, keeping the prices extremely high.”

The Korean startup’s smart hearing aid, Olive, can be connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth. A total of eight audio bands, can be adjusted on a smartphone app, run on both the Android and iOS operating systems, to help users better pick up specific sounds in low, mid and high frequencies.

More audio channels mean more sophisticated sounds a user can hear and usually eight or 16 bands are available with a traditional hearing aid.

Song said people can notice little difference above the eight sound bands.

The firm’s smart earpiece -- size slightly larger than an olive -- costs US$100, compared to US$2,000-6,000 for conventional hearing aids that cannot be linked to smartphones.

The Olive earpiece can be used for up to 8 hours on one 10-minute full charge and comes with a portable charging case, which also can be a portable battery for two charges.

It weighs 7.2 grams and measures 1.9 centimeters in width and 2.3 centimeters height.

Featuring two microphones to pick up and sort out external sounds and a noise-canceling solution, Olive performs nearly as good as traditional hearing aids, Song said.

The 30-year-old CEO studied architectural design at Samsung Art and Design Institute-- an educational institute for design run by Samsung -- Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University.

He decided to launch the startup after seeing one of his relatives ditch a US$4,000 hearing aid after using it for just one day, because of poor sound frequency and discomfort.




The startup is in talks with hospitals in Korea to collect and analyze data of patients with hearing issues.

“Doctors who are aware of deeply rooted practices, such as kickbacks, are willing to work with Olive to bring a change in the hearing health care segment,” Song said.

The entrepreneur said he plans to focus on global expansion where he see larger opportunities and demand for smart, affordable hearing aids is high.

“The fact that 75 percent of the initial preorders for Olive came from global markets, especially the US, show there are untapped opportunities,” he said.

As of June 5, the Korean has startup raised a total of US$445,668 through its crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for around five months -- the initial goal was US$20,000.

The company is scheduled to start shipping some 4,000 units for local and overseas customers, while the second round of shipment will likely start in December.

By Kim Young-won (wone0102@heraldcorp.com)


The Investor Profile

Founded: July, 2016
Headquarters: Seoul
Description: Olive Union produces a smart hearing aid that can be linked to a smartphone app, with which users can remotely set audio frequencies.
Founder/CEO: Owen Song
Funding: Around 700 million won (US$625,894) in total 
► An angel investment of 100 million won from an affiliate of LIG in August 2016
► A 20 million-won fund from Industrial Bank of Korea and Social Solidarity Bank in September 2016
► US$444,739 raised through the ongoing Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign
Website: www.oliveunion.com

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