The Business of Science
Scientific innovations and their resulting commercial applications provide one of the most exciting opportunities for students in the sciences. Restored Hearing is an example of business arising from such innovation.
As part of a secondary school project, Rhona Togher, Anthony Carolan and I began to look at ways of using sound waves to tackle auditory problems. We examined tinnitus, ringing in the ears, and were shocked to discover that 92% of the population experience temporary tinnitus at some point in their lives. Tinnitus usually occurs after exposure to loud music or noise. However, many people are unaware this is a sign that serious damage has been done to their ears. As tinnitus after concerts, discos or prolonged use of MP3 players is most common in our peers, this became the focus of our research.
Tinnitus is caused by loud sounds bending or even breaking the cochlear hairs (sound receptor cells) in the inner ear. Our project developed a therapy that stimulates the inner ear by using sound to vibrate it in a specific manner; this moves the bent cochlear hairs back to their original position, eliminating the irritating ringing and restoring hearing sensitivity. We put our therapy to the test and found a 99% success rate amongst temporary tinnitus sufferers after just one minute of treatment.
Surprised and encouraged by our success, we discussed what to do with our innovative therapy. We decided to create a company and incorporated as directors and co-owners of Restored Hearing in May 2009. Setting up a company was daunting to say the least, as we had no business experience. We were very fortunate, however, to have business mentors and advisors on hand to guide us. Having a business mentor from an early stage was one of the best things we did, as it provided an objective outsider’s viewpoint.
The summer of 2009 was spent securing funding, designing the website (www.restoredhearing.com), publicising the company and raising awareness of tinnitus and hearing damage. Securing funding and insurance proved difficult as the recession started to take effect, sometimes it was difficult to imagine ever launching the business. Perseverance and networking were very important at this stage. Countless emails, phone calls and meetings later, we had both insurance and funding and our e-commerce website was ready to launch in August 2009.
As the launch date approached, things became very hectic with intense media coverage due to the unusual origins of our project; it’s not often that a secondary school project leads to a business opportunity. However, the nerves didn’t last long when we made that first, and unforgettable, sale. It felt so rewarding to have years of hard work validated on both a scientific and commercial basis.
Our official launch took place at the end of August 2009, where we got to say a well deserved “thank you” to all those who had supported us along the way. A business launch is also an excellent opportunity to get publicity for the company, and we were thrilled to get local and national coverage in newspapers and on TV and radio.
As September 2009 arrived, Rhona and I went to study physics in University College Dublin and the University of Edinburgh, respectively, and Anthony returned to teaching physics. Although we are much farther apart, the work hasn’t ceased.
We were approached by the Institute of Physics, who wanted to promote us, resulting in coverage in Scientific American and BBC News Online. Having used Scientific American during our research, this was an immense honour. As word spread, a Dutch consumer programme invited us to perform a live test on their TV show. We jumped at the opportunity and the test was a wonderful success as well as good exposure in a new market. We also won the regional Ulster Bank Business Achiever Award for Emerging Technology in 2009, of which we are very proud.
Restored Hearing is now a Launch.ed-supported company. We are also members of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. We are campaigning to “Stop the Deaf Generation” by increasing public awareness of the damage listening to loud music can cause to one’s hearing and promoting ‘healthy hearing’.
There are lots of resources in the University of Edinburgh, especially Launch.ed, and beyond to help anyone who has a business idea. My advice would be to research your idea as thoroughly as possible and get as much support, including mentoring, as you can from an early stage. Restored Hearing has taught me that scientific discoveries can be turned into promising business ventures with a good support network and a lot of hard work. It has certainly been, and continues to be, an exciting journey.