Innovation echoes down family lines

Two Melbourne quantum physicists invented the only self-fitting hearing aid on the market. Now their two families are helping the start-up grow to the next stage.

This week’s family business story is an unusual one for us – it’s only four years old. Most of the families we profile are at least a few generations in, but this one hasn’t seen even its first succession yet. Oh, and it’s two families, not one.

The company is Blamey Saunders Hearing Pty Ltd, a hearing aid business and a partnership between two Melbourne scientists, Professor Peter Blamey and Dr Elaine Saunders. They own 90 per cent jointly, not 45 per cent each, and the other 10 per cent is owned by America Hears Inc.

Blamey and Saunders are both quantum physicists who moved into audio science, and they have invented a self-fitting hearing aid that can be bought online. The things cost between $2000 and $3500 for a pair, which is around a fifth of the normal cost, and more importantly people can buy them on the internet with their credit cards.

It’s a dramatic illustration of the potential for what is now called e-health – patients using the internet to deal with their medical needs.

In some ways the Blamey Saunders invention is as big a revolution as the Cochlear implant itself: the customer simply hooks up the hearing aid to a computer and plays four chimes, and the software embedded in the device tunes it for the wearer.

The private hearing aid market in Australia is roughly 100,000 devices a year; Blamey Saunders Hears, as the business is called, sells a few thousand. Elaine Saunders believes they can grow to double-digit market share and also open up a big untapped market of early stage hearing loss that normally goes untreated.

But is it a family business? Well, yes, and today’s profile is also a tribute to the Spouse: so many family businesses look like they are just one person, usually a man, succeeded by his children, but behind him is a wife who is as much a part of the business as the one who is running it, both in ownership and contribution.

Last week I wrote tongue-in-cheek about how Pamela Colosimo was producing staff for the family hotel business (six boys).

This week’s spouse-as-hero is John Bellhouse, Elaine Saunders’ husband. Eleven years ago he decided to stop work to look after their four children and support Elaine; without him Blamey Saunders Hearing wouldn’t exist.

At the time she was working for a company called Dynamic Hearing, which had been spun out of a CRC (Co-operative Research Company) which had, in turn, been spun off from Cochlear and was connected to the Bionics Institute and the University of Melbourne. It was called the Cochlear Implant and Hearing Aid Innovation CRC and existed to develop the next generation of hearing aid electrodes.

Dynamic Hearing, which was owned by the CRC and two venture capital firms, was spun off to develop hearing aid software after computer chips started being fitted to the devices. Elaine Saunders was its CEO.

That company was eventually sold to Wolfson Microelectronics and Dr Saunders got a day job at RMIT while she and Peter Blamey worked on their own start-up venture, based on a new way of programming the onboard chip in a hearing aid so it could be easily fitted by anyone doing it themselves.

It was the sort of vision that revolutionises industries. Elaine Saunders says it is the only self-fitting hearing aid on the market, and the IP is entirely Australian, owned by Blamey and Saunders, and their families, although the devices are manufactured by 10 per cent shareholder America Hears.

The first succession for the business is already underway: three of Elaine Saunders’ children are already working in the business and so is Peter Blamey’s son, also an audio scientist.

Businesses like this are often sold, and America Hears, the global hearing aid giant, is the obvious buyer of this one.

But Blamey and Saunders are pleased at having created an Australian family-owned company based on globally cutting edge science and it’s plain that they would like to see it pass to the second generation.

If it does, it will be a true family business. If they sell it, Blamey Saunders Hears will be another successful start-up that was sold.

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