A Canadian Invention Story – Research Project to Market Success
This is a tale about a Canadian innovation and the challenges of bringing a product to market and this story is a treatment for a medical condition called Tinnitus.
Tinnitus is “the perception of sound that is generated in the head”. Many people know tinnitus as the ringing or buzzing sound associated with coming out of a loud concert or other very noisy environments. Tinnitus may also sound like crickets, high tension wires, jet engine noise, whooshing, humming, or even music. It can be heard as coming from one or both ears or from within the head. Tinnitus sufferers number in the tens of millions globally, with over 16 million Americans seeking treatment for persistent ringing in the ears that disrupts their quality of life, work and even sleep.
Sound Options Tinnitus Treatments Inc. was founded by Dr. Michael Chrostowski, who has a degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Toronto and a PhD in neuroscience from McMaster University. Dr. Chrostowski spent the duration of his neuroscience doctorate degree researching and developing treatments for tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears). He found that changes in the brain cause the ringing or whistling sounds of tinnitus, with brain neurons misfiring. This experience has allowed him to develop a deep understanding of the customer pain, the market opportunity, as well as the knowledge to develop software based on cutting-edge tinnitus research.
It all started in 2013 with a STEM internship application at the University of Toronto for Shelly-Anne Li, when recent PhD graduate Dr. Michael Chrostowski wanted to test his tinnitus sound therapy on humans; his initial trial was on lab rats. Shelly-Anne led a randomized controlled trial on investigating the effects of a personalized sound therapy on tinnitus and applied for grants and competitions for start-up companies. Dr. Lu Han joined the team in the same year to help with business development with audiologists to deliver the treatment to their patients.
Learning on the fly, these academics turned entrepreneurs networked with different innovation hubs including MaRS, IMPACT Centre, ventureLAB, Spark Centre. Here they were exposed to business development; very different from their initial training (in science); different audience, different collaborators – a different way of thinking. They learned how to do pitches, how to sell product, financial management, business development, marketing, social media and website building.
The company got an initial grant from the Ontario Brain Institute for $50,000 in 2012 and a total of $170,000 of seed funding was raised to help commercialize the product and it was launched in 2014. As any start-up the marketing budget was low, says Shelly- Anne Li, we embarked on a marketing with a focus on awards programs and digital channels. Here is a review of the four P ’s of marketing – Product , Pricing, Promotion, and Place for this new product.
Sound Options has developed a music-based sound therapy for tinnitus management. It is a software using an embedded computational model of the hearing brain in order to predict how to design an optimal sound therapy for each tinnitus sufferer based on a personalized profile.
Using this profile, the software determines how the tinnitus is developed and what sound input is required to retrain the hearing brain to reduce/eliminate tinnitus. The hearing and tinnitus profiles are (this can be done online) obtained within 15 to 20 minutes and sent to a secure database using a proprietary web-based tool. The software automatically pulls the submitted profile from the database, produces an optimal sound therapy, embeds it into music, and uploads the music to the cloud.
The music therapy can be played on any device, allowing the patient to listen at their leisure. The clinical study indicates that the treatment effects for the sound therapy works 3X quicker and has longer lasting effects compared to existing sound therapies. It requires the client to listen to the music for 2 hours per day, and this can be done during sleeping or waking times (effects are the same). Most patients see benefits in 3 months, but the music listening must be at least 2 hours per day.
Each customer gets a uniquely modified music CD specifically processed to reduce their tinnitus. You can buy four CDS for a total cost of $400 CAD.
The product won some awards the Synapse Life Sciences Award in 2015, in 2016 it won the Best Innovation award from the Ignite competition hosted by the Spark Centre in Durham Region. They have produced video for their website hosted on YouTube and are active on other social media channels that include Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter. The website was set-up with password protection section for clinics that can access the diagnostic online tools. http://soundoptions.ca/
The marketing efforts included a good dose of digital content marketing like posting the results of the research on scientific medical websites like the US National Library of Medicine in 2016, a patient testimonial blog post on the Durham Workforce Authority website in 2016 and authoring stories in trade magazine like Canadian Audiologist in 2017. A press release was send out in November 2016 to announce the FDA clearance approval in the USA that was picked up by Audiology World News. A podcast interview was made available on YouTube in March 2019.
The product was initially launched in 2014 in a handful of clinics in Hamilton and Toronto and is now offered at over 200 clinics, which includes both large and smaller franchises (e.g., Hearing Life Canada, Hearing Solutions clinics) and independent clinics. The product got received FDA approval clearance in 2016 for the important USA market and the the product was launched in China in 2017.
This story is the importance of research in developing new products with an identified market need and a good case study on Canadian Innovation and entrepreneurship that started at a research lab at a universiy.. It also demonstrates the skill set required of managers of being a “Jack of all Trades” versus just specializing in one area as we had three scientists start a company and they had to learn on the fly to be a entrepreneur and looks like they are quick learners another important trait.