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Spotlight on Andrew Sabin, PhD, Entrepreneur and Research Engineer at Bose

Created: June 5, 2018
Andrew Sabin

Andrew Sabin, PhD, an inventor and entrepreneur who is creating new solutions for people suffering from hearing loss, graduated from Northwestern University in 2011 with a PhD in Communication Sciences and Disorders. He then founded Ear Machine, a company dedicated to creating and distributing novel and accessible hearing tools, such as the EarMachine app.

Andrew has been working as a research engineer in the Bose Hear division since 2014, when Bose Corporation acquired his company. Their first product, Hearphones, a pair of headphones designed to help people hear better in noise, is now available to the public.

Why did you choose Northwestern for your graduate studies?

When I was starting my PhD, I was already very interested in the auditory system. I had done previous work in music technology and psychoacoustics – a field dedicated to investigating how your brain makes sense of sound - and Northwestern has a very strong hearing department. At the time, I was particularly interested in perceptual learning – how you can make your hearing better with training – and I was very interested in working with a leader in this field, Beverly Wright, who ended up being my PhD advisor.

How would you describe your graduate research in non-specialist terms?

My thesis was about perceptual learning – how humans can get better at sensory skills with training. Specifically, we investigated ways to make it easier to train one’s auditory skills. Bev Wright and I realized that simply playing sounds in people’s ears does not make them better at recognizing sounds, but practice at identifying those sounds does make them better: It is like a “no pain, no gain” kind of thing. We demonstrated very clearly that if you combine active and passive training – where you spend some time doing the arduous task of listening to differences in tones and then you follow that up with a bunch of presentations of those tones, you actually do better at recognizing tones. You essentially achieve a little more “gain” without the pain associated with it.

In my thesis, we provided some support for the idea that there is an analogous circuit between the auditory and visual system in how they represent variation in stimuli across the sensory receptors. In the visual system, it’s space – objects are broken down by the brain into things that vary gradually or things that vary rapidly across space. We showed evidence that the auditory system does something very similar, but instead of space, the ear organizes itself by frequency.

Tell me a little bit about your experience founding your own company, Ear Machine LLC.

My PhD was in basic science – we were not trying to apply to the real world; we were just trying to figure out how the auditory system works. After graduating, I had a desire to get more involved in applying what I know to the real world. At that point, I was very interested in hearing loss. Toward the end of my PhD, I did some side projects focusing on this topic, and I did a brief postdoc with Pam Souza at Northwestern to deepen my expertise on hearing loss. That was the trajectory into my startup.

There is a general accessibility problem with hearing aids: in the United States, only about 20% of the people who can benefit from hearing aids actually get them. If you compare that to countries in Western Europe where hearing aids are free or subsidized, that number is closer to 40%. In Scandinavia, where most of the hearing aid companies are based, that number is closer to 60%. People in the United States can pay about $5,000 for a pair of hearing aids. One reason it is so expensive and inaccessible is that it takes many appointments with highly trained audiologists.

People with untreated hearing loss tend to have age-related dementia that increases at a more rapid rate. The belief is that if they have untreated hearing loss then they are more likely to become isolated and check out of the world around them. This is a public health problem that we are addressing, and that is what motivates me.

It occurred to me that there is another solution, which is to use all of the tricks we use in the digital world (for example to simplify large datasets) to streamline the process of getting help for hearing loss. Therefore, I made the EarMachine app, where we provided the user with a simple interface to calibrate hearing devices on their own.

Tell us about Bose Hearphones, the device you created at Bose.

Bose Hearphones, which is officially classified as a personal sound amplifier product (PSAP), is different from hearing aids. With Hearphones, you use the accompanying smart phone app (based on the EarMachine app) to make the world louder or quieter. You can also have the device focus on sounds coming from a particular direction. It can be especially helpful in noisy environments like a loud restaurant. This device is more affordable (it has a $500 price tag), and you can have it shipped directly to your doorstep.

What impact did your time at Northwestern have on your current work?

Our startup actually had many Northwestern threads. One of my partners at EarMachine was Dianne Van Tasell, who completed her PhD at Northwestern in 1977. She and I did our PhDs in the same department, and we actually met at Northwestern while she was doing consulting work for another Northwestern connection, Sumit Dhar, the chair of our department. Dianne and I met because of him and hit it off and that was the start of our partnership.

Some of the original research for Ear Machine was done at Northwestern, and Northwestern owns some of the patents. We worked closely with the Northwestern INVO office throughout the life of the company. When we received our government grants, we contracted Northwestern to run evaluations of the technology.

Looking back, what do you wish you could have told your graduate student self?

My advisor, Bev Wright, was a real stickler for clear scientific communication. We would agonize over every word – and that was at times painful. However, the skills that I learned in communication have helped me as much as anything else that I learned at Northwestern. Whether you are giving a pitch to an investor or someone who might acquire you, or if you are trying to align a team around a vision, being able to communicate clearly is extremely valuable.

I think I would also tell my graduate self that is ok to go to the corporate world. At Bose, we get tons of letters and emails from customers telling us, “I didn’t know what I was missing,” or stories such as, “I haven’t had a good conversation with Grandpa in years. I put this thing in his ears and he lit up and I talked with him like I use to.” Those kinds of letters give you such a sense of purpose.

What is next for you?

Early on, my job at Bose was to help build Hearphones. Currently, research & development to improve Hearphones is my focus. I am working on new features, such as how we can make this process even simpler and even more effective for people with hearing loss.

There is a disruption happening in the hearing device field because the barriers for entry are being lowered. What will it look like in the future? Who else will enter this space, and what ideas will they bring? There is so much blue sky in this field that will change people’s lives.

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