The Sweet Sound of Innovation
Elizabeth Williams, co-founder and CEO of Hemideina, is developing an alternative cochlear implant solution inspired by the auditory systems of insects.
The New Zealand native Hemideina crassidens, or the Wellington tree weta, is a tiny nocturnal species that feeds at night and rests in hollow tree branches during the day. Given the vast evolutionary gap, the weta appears at first glance to have little in common with humans, except for perhaps one feature—their similar auditory range.
The weta was the source of inspiration for Melbourne-based MedTech startup Hemideina, which was founded by scientists Dr Elizabeth Williams and Dr Kate Lomas to develop an alternative hearing treatment technology based on Lomas’s PhD studies into how the weta processes sound.
In February 2017, the duo pitched Hemideina’s technology at Australia’s MedTech’s Got Talent competition. After winning the competition and securing AUD$60,000 in seed funding, they went on to raise a further AUD$1 million in Series A funding in early 2019, and an Australian Federal Government Accelerating Commercialisation grant of AUD$800,000. Williams is the company’s CEO, while Lomas serves as Chief Scientific Officer.
Speaking to SGInnovate on the sidelines of MedTech Investors Night on 22 May, where Hemideina was one of 20 startups taking part in a one-on-one matchmaking session, Williams explained that only three percent of the world’s profoundly deaf people have been treated with cochlear implants. Hemideina is thus on a mission to allow everyone to “enjoy the gift of hearing and live a life without limits.”
Q: How did you become interested in pursuing a career in the MedTech industry?
I studied chemistry at university and was developing novel chemotherapeutics as part of my PhD studies. I was always passionate about using science to advance medical discoveries and improve treatments. When I moved to Australia, I became a materials scientist focusing in the biomedical field and my interest pivoted towards materials and devices in terms of implantable controlled drug release systems.
Knowing that your research and discoveries could one day improve the quality of life for patients or eradicate their disease is incredibly motivating and rewarding.
Q: Could you share with us the story of how Hemideina was founded?
My co-founder Kate Lomas and I both worked at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. We worked in different parts of the organisation but came together as part of a course called Molecules to Medicines, where participants learn the pathway [of drug development] from drug discovery to market entry.
Kate had the idea for the Hera Wireless Implant following her PhD studies on the New Zealand tree weta’s hearing system. When Kate left CSIRO, we joined forces to see whether we could turn her idea into a business. We knew that there was a clear unmet clinical need and that we could address the technical challenges of cochlear implant treatment. Combined with a large global market (US$2 billion in annual revenue) but only three percent market penetration, we also knew there was a significant market opportunity.
We entered MedTech’s Got Talent, an Australian accelerator programme, to validate the idea. We won the competition, which gave us the initial funds to start the company in February 2017 and build initial prototypes to prove the concept.
Elizabeth Williams (left), with her co-founder Kate Lomas
Q: What differentiates Hemideina’s technology from other hearing aid devices?
Only three percent of patients who could benefit from a cochlear implant have received treatment worldwide. There is a significant unmet clinical need, both from the lifestyle and aesthetics issues of the current treatment (large, delicate external components), but also the patient outcomes—improving these will increase access to treatment through improved reimbursement and increased consumer pull.
We aim for the Hera Wireless Implant to be the standard of care for the treatment of moderate-to-profound deafness. Hemideina’s device uses a different signal processing method. This method enables us to divide a sound wave into its constituent frequency bands, and convert these into discreet electrical pulses using only the energy of the sound wave, and in a small footprint, enabling us to provide a sound processor that sits within the ear canal.
Our Hera In-Ear bud sound processor replaces the external components of the current technology. Not only does this mean that users no longer need to make lifestyle adjustments because there are no delicate external components, but there is also no visual indicator of a user’s hearing disability. Our sound processing takes all the information from the sound wave, and also uses the ear’s natural contours for directionality.
It is our aim to improve patient outcomes such as hearing in noise and directionality, to provide better speech perception and speech performance.
Q: How far along in development is the Hera Wireless Implant device, and what is the payment model for it?
We are currently developing our prototype to be ready for animal trials. Current cochlear implants can be accessed via reimbursement pathways such as Medicare and private health insurance, or via private pay (out-of-pocket), and require a referral pathway. The device has an implantable component, and therefore requires surgery in hospital. Both patients and clinicians are involved in the decision for treatment.
Q: What remains a challenge for your company, technically or otherwise?
As we are at an early stage, we have technical challenges to overcome and milestones to achieve as part of our product development pathway. It’s about careful and considered planning to ensure each forward pathway de-risks the technology and achieves evidence of device performance, and validation of our value propositions.
Our device is also a Class III medical device, and therefore it requires the highest standards of safety and efficacy. However, we do have a clear regulatory pathway with known industry standards to achieve in order to demonstrate its safety and efficacy.
Cochlear implants also have established reimbursement codes that we aim to align with for market access.
At SGInnovate, our venture building team works with early-stage deep tech startups, especially in the MedTech field, to help founders start and grow their businesses. We love to share their startup stories to inspire more entrepreneurial scientists to make a difference to the world.
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