Sept. 9 is designated as “Ears’ Day.” This day means people have interest in ear health and are concerned about people who suffer from difficulties related to the ears. Corrective lenses, or glasses and contact lenses are very familiar to the public, enough to be used for fashion. On the other hand, because hearing aids are not generalized, people wearing hearing aids often get an icy stare from the public.
However, according to statistics from the National Health Insurance Corporation, the number of those hard of hearing increased 25 percent in five years, from 28 million people in 2012 to 35 million people in 2017. Judging from this, difficulty in hearing has become a more mainstream problem that cannot be ignored or treated with ostracism anymore.
After realizing these social problems, Song Myung-geun made a special hearing aid different from existing ones for contributing to a better quality of life. The Argus listened to his story about how this device could be developed.
The Argus: Please introduce yourself and “Olive Union.”
Song Myung-geun (Song): Hello. I am Song Myung-geun, the CEO of Olive Union. Olive Union was established in July, 2016, and is a start-up that develops and produces the Smart Hearing Aid. Our hearing aid is sold at one tenth of the existing hearing aids’ prices. As a result of this pricing target, we achieved our startup goal of 900 million won (US$ 797,872.34) pre-order via crowdfunding in the United States.
The Argus: Please explain the concept of the “Olive” Smart Hearing Aid in detail.
Song: First, the origin of the name “Olive” came from the “Noah’s Ark” story. In the story, after many days at sea, a pigeon finds and brings an olive branch back to the ark, which symbolizes a message of hope. We thought we also want to be someone’s hope, and that is why our hearing aid was named “Olive.”
The Smart Hearing Aid is a product that has a function of looking for and correcting a section of hearing loss that is different for each person through a controlling frequency application. By connecting to a smartphone and bluetooth, it can be also used for calling and listening to music. For these reasons, it got the name “Smart.”
The Argus: What is special about the Smart Hearing Aid unlike existing ones on the market?
Song: General hearing aids must be connected to the computer to tune the frequency, but this can only be done in some agencies; in other words, not at home or on the go. However, the Smart Hearing Aid enables people to take a hearing test by themselves and to set or program their hearing aid anytime, anywhere.
Furthermore, in design, common hearing aids are similar to users’ skin color and existing companies try to hide it inside the ears. We thought conversely, that hearing aids can be accessories like fashionable glasses, so we designed them as bluetooth earphones.
The Argus: What was the motivation behind making the Smart Hearing Aid?
Song: A few years ago, my acquaintance bought a hearing aid, but it was so expensive and became less useful over time. Eventually, he did not wear a hearing aid for a long time. When searching for information about hearing aids in order to help him, I realized that the hearing aids market is monopolized. In addition, technological advancements in hearing aids is slow, so I started making the “Olive” to fix these problems.
The Argus: Concretely, what are the difficulties that the hard of hearing undergo when using hearing aids?
Song: Above all, the price of prevalent hearing aids is extremely expensive. Common hearing aids require agencies, so the prices contain costs for operating agencies and labor. In addition to these, when they bring products from the head office, the supply price is included in the hearing aid cost. In the end, hearing aids are inevitably priced high and consumers turn away from them.
Further, actually about one in 20 people all over the world have hearing loss. However, they have difficulty with wearing hearing aids due to people’s cold stares. In the case of South Korea, only 7.5 percent of the hard of hearing wear hearing aids among people with hearing loss. The others just live without hearing aids despite not being able to be hear well.
The Argus: Did you have any difficulties while developing the Smart Hearing Aid?
Song: We had much trouble in producing the Smart Hearing Aid, because we had developed it from the ground up. In the beginning, we started out simply by amplifying audio. In the process, each component’s balance was very important as well as completion of the software technology. Accordingly, we had to upgrade both software and hardware simultaneously, and the process was hard for us. At present, we achieved this and the Smart Hearing Aid was approved by Food and Drug Administration.
The Argus: What changes do you want to bring in society by making the Smart Hearing Aid?
Song: Our primary goal is to have hearing aids generalized like glasses are. Although wearing hearing aids is not a shameful behavior, there is a kind of perception that people are ashamed of wearing them and want to hide them. I hope these perceptions are improved even a little bit.
Moreover, there is a skewed image that social enterprises and social ventures do good things with difficulty. Thus, we want to be a symbol that social enterprises do something socially nice and helpful for people, but are also creating influential added value.
The Argus: What are some efforts that can be done in society to help solve problems for the hard of hearing?
Song: I think we should help so that many people can do their own hearing tests. It seems that many people currently are not aware of how prevalent the problems of hearing loss truly are. Even I realized for the first time that both my ears’ hearing is different through our audiometry system. At that time, I thought maybe other people also do not know about this matter well.
I also hope that a system will be created that allows consumers to compare hearing aids on the Internet and to buy according to their personal tastes and budgets. Unlike other general products, price comparison of hearing aids does not appear, by nature of the sales channel. By the way, people know nothing of this fact.
The Argus: What are your future plans?
Song: Currently, we sell a monotype version that can only be worn on one side. In sequence, we are developing a launch product in a stereotype version that makes sound come out from both sides.
Moreover, we are planning projects that can contribute to society as a social venture. If we create more profits, we are scheduled to donate products. We also want to hold a “concert for the hard of hearing” that deaf people can participate in.
The Argus: Do you have any messages you want to convey to the readers?
Song: It is important to be concerned about whether there are people who are hard of hearing around you. For example, there are a few gestures that can be done when people cannot listen well, such as seeing mainly other’s mouths or going near one ear. If you discover these gestures from someone, giving advice like going to hospital can be helpful. Advising people who listen to music loudly to stop doing so is also a great help to the prevention of hearing loss.
Song Myung-geun said he would like to create a world that does not need to put up with discomfort due to financial problems. The Smart Hearing Aid will be helpful for the hard of hearing who have had to bear some inconveniences such as a burdensome price.
Song also said that his biggest goal is for people to not get negative attention about wearing hearing aids. The reporter hopes the day will come that prejudice against the hard of hearing disappears from society and people with hearing loss can talk looking into each others’ eyes, not seeing each others’ mouths.
By Jang Yu-jin
Staff Reporter of National Section