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Interview with Brian Kinnerk, Unitron Hearing US

Brian Kinnerk

June 19, 2006
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Topic: Unitron Hearing's New Premium Hearing Instrument - Indigo™
Dybala: I have the pleasure of talking today with Brian Kinnerk, the president of Unitron Hearing US about their newest premium product, Indigo. Brian, thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. Give us an introduction to Indigo (See Figure 1).


Figure 1. Indigo BTE and CIC style instruments

Kinnerk: Thanks Paul, it is always good to talk with you and the Audiology Online readers! Indigo is a very important product for Unitron Hearing as this is our new premium level product. Indio is our automatic hearing instrument that delivers brilliant sound utilizing proven state-of-the-art premium technologies.

Dybala: How did you decide what technologies you wanted to include in Indigo?

Kinnerk: We wanted to focus on real-world, practical solutions and features that drive end-user and professional benefits. Sophisticated automatic performance is important if you want to make sure that things sound right to the user. You need to incorporate advanced directional technologies to help solve speech in noise issues. Feedback reduction is important in eliminating the annoyance factor associated with hearing aid use. Finally, data-logging is an important feature, as it provides the professional a great analytical tool to assess real world utilization and applications. When you position a product in the premium category, it is about letting the technology do all the heavy lifting. The patient is really paying for convenience. They are looking for sophisticated technology that is seamless and user-friendly.

Dybala: Part of your challenge is to not just lift heavy weights, but lift the correct weights and in the right sequence.

Kinnerk: Absolutely, and that's not an easy task. We have had an evolution in terms of state-of-the-art technology and what it can do. The impressive capabilities of our new microchip platform allow all of these advanced algorithms with a high level of accuracy and speed. The patient really doesn't want to do a lot of thinking about amplification. It's enough to just get them to think about getting amplification to begin with. When they do make that decision that they want to take action for their hearing problems, they also don't want to be burdened with a lot of decisions. They want to have a very sophisticated electronic device, but they want it to be easy to use. This is the basis behind the theme that we use in our Indigo literature and marketing material: "I am Indigo. I am sophisticated, but not complicated".

Dybala: What are the basic features of Indigo?

Kinnerk: Indigo is built on a 16 channel platform. We have 16 channels of multiband adaptive directionality, so in theory you can have 16 different noise sources, either moving or stationary, that are suppressed simultaneously. (See Figure 2)


Figure 2. Examples of Indigo's adaptive directionality. Left to right - Tracks and suppresses moving noise sources, suppresses up to 16 noise sources, concurrently manages moving and stationary noises.

Indigo also has a phase canceller feedback management system, a noise reduction system that works across the 16 channels, a wind noise manager and an automatic telephone solution. The device can have a standard volume control or no volume control. Indigo has four automatic sound destinations within autoPro4™ and three additional manual programs as well. We can, therefore, give patients a hearing aid that is completely automatic, or they can control it as much as they like.

Dybala: Tell me more about autoPro4.

Kinnerk: Indigo's platform uses intelligent sound classification to detect the environment that a person is in. Our research has shown that this usually falls into one of four categories or sound destinations. They are Quiet, Group / Party Noise, Traffic / Intense Noise or Music. Once the classifier determines what environment a person is in, it switches to the appropriate sound destination automatically. These destinations each contain different adaptive features and frequency responses to provide the best listening experience for the client in that particular environment.

Dybala: What type of information is Indigo using to make these classifications?

Kinnerk: Indigo's sound classifier evaluates sound modulation depth, modulation frequency, transient impulses, spectral variance and initiation.

Dybala: Can you give me an example of the goals and settings for a given destination?

Kinnerk: I have provided a visual representation of autoPro4 in Figure 3. Each autoPro4 destination has an explicitly stated goal and a group of settings to achieve that goal. As an example, when a user is in the Quiet destination, the goal is optimizing audibility - to maximize the perception of a wide range of acoustic inputs. The hearing aid has an optimized frequency response and is in omnidirectional mode, noise cancellation is off, the phase canceller is on, but at a medium level, and the wind noise manager is off. I think that as you look through the other destinations, the settings are pretty intuitive. If you need to, you can make adjustments to these four destinations, or the three additional programs can provide more customization. You can also copy one of the autoPro4 settings into the additional slots for a good starting point as well. Overall, we have received really positive responses about Indigo from our beta test sites. This is a really wonderful product.


Figure 3. AutoPro4 destinations, including goals and subsystem settings.

Dybala: I am glad that you mentioned that. I know that Unitron Hearing does a lot of research and product development and a lot of clinical trials. Tell me about the process that you went through to develop and validate Indigo.

Kinnerk: We start talking about these products long before we actually develop them. We have a new head of R&D, in Kitchener, Ontario who has made technology validation a priority. This has resulted in putting new protocols and processes in place so that we dedicate more time to truly validating product performance. We conduct both internal and external beta trials and other systematic checks along the development process to make sure that we are on the right track. This gives us the opportunity to circle back if we find any issues and solve them right away. We used a similar process with our new U:fit™ software as well.

Indigo is the first product on our new microchip platform. We had to take extra time to make sure that it delivered. We had to marry the hardware platform to new algorithms and that took additional development time.

Dybala: I guess you could say that this is a proven and re-proven technology.

Kinnerk: We know our industry and what the gold standard is. We sought out subjects who were wearing state-of-the-art technology from our competitors and we fit those people with Indigo to make sure that we were getting an "apples to apples" comparison. We did several of those types of trials in three different countries and Indigo was given high marks by these users. This supports the fact that we have brought a great product to market.

Dybala: You mentioned this earlier, with Indigo you have also released a new generation of fitting software, U:fit.

Kinnerk: U:fit is completely new and builds on the long time advantages of our previous software Unifit. We understand that the programming interface is critical and that this can really enhance the ability of a professional to effectively fit advanced hearing aid technology.

Dybala: Give us a little tour of U:fit.

Kinnerk: First off, the interface, from a graphical standpoint, is a big departure from where we were. You are never more than one click away from the main fitting screen and everything is at your fingertips. (See Figure 4).


Figure 4. The Fitting screen of the U:fit software.

Dybala: Looking at your software I would say it's almost like browsing a well designed web site. You have your navigation on the top left and that is going to expand and contract based on where you are at. I think you have done a great job at immediately letting the professional know what they can accomplish with your fitting software from the first screen.

Kinnerk: The hearing professionals at our beta sites were very positive on the ease of navigation, speed of programming and accuracy of the initial fitting. You just can't underestimate the power of the fitting software and how that can help the professional do a better job of fitting hearing aids.

Dybala: It looks like you have a premium hearing aid and fitting system. How does this fit into Unitron Hearing's position in the industry of focusing on being the best value?

Kinnerk: True to our identity, we are a value proposition to the industry. We are known for that and we will defend that position in the market place. There are features in other premium products that have yet to prove that they provide real user benefit and consequently may not be worth the additional price. We continually work at understanding our customers and identifying their needs. Indigo delivers the sophisticated technology that satisfies these needs.

Dybala: My understanding is that Unitron Hearing has had a lot of its growth with its mid-level digital products and that's because you were able to provide a lot of value there. Looks like you are looking to do the same with this high-end product, Indigo.

Kinnerk: Sure, you have to build on your foundation. We knew that, given our legacy and given the historical positioning of Unitron Hearing we wanted to build on our solid base of economy and mid-level digital instruments. Our customers told us that they wanted to have a higher end device from us and we responded. We knew that we had to challenge ourselves to come up with a product that we could put up against any other product on the market, but also have a more attractive price point. This is really a different approach than many of our competitors. It was about 4-5 years ago that we established our Unison product in the economy segment and then worked our way up. Indigo is really the last piece of the puzzle, as we have put a cap on the top of our technology pyramid.

All of that said, product is obviously important, but it goes hand in hand with service. Service to our customers is really an area where I feel that Unitron Hearing shines.

Dybala: Let's get to Unitron Hearing's customer service. Ultimately, better service to the professional results in better service to the patient.

Kinnerk: Products are a given; you have to have a good product to be a player and to be competitive. While products are important, ultimately we are passionate about our service. If you have great technology, but you can't marry it to solid customer care, solid manufacturing and solid education, you're going to lose. We strive to be a good partner to our customers and defend our value proposition. We have a wonderful team of excellent people at Unitron Hearing who know our customers intimately. Our goal is to provide the best customer care in the industry.

Dybala: Brian, I appreciate the time you have spent with me today to tell us about U:fit, Indigo and Unitron Hearing. I'll give you the last word.

Kinnerk: Our professionals keep us honest! We strive to provide them with the products and services that they expect. Our newest product, Indigo, focuses on the features that have been proven to be essential in providing patient satisfaction. U:fit is a clean interface into a wealth of features offered by Indigo. Together, these provide what I mentioned earlier, sophistication without complication. As a company, Unitron Hearing focuses on hearing professionals who appreciate and understand our philosophy and with that focus we'll continue to grow. Wait, is that tape recorder on?


About Unitron Hearing:

Unitron Hearing is committed to improving the lives of people with hearing loss by developing high-quality hearing solutions that incorporate practical features to solve the everyday challenges and concerns they have with hearing loss and hearing aids. This commitment benefits you, the hearing healthcare professional, with practical fitting options, support when you need it and the ability to offer solutions that address what matters most to your clients. More information can be found at www.unitronhearing.com

Indigo Web Site: www.indigo.unitronhearing.com/

Indigo Information for Consumers: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/people/productsp_us/indigop.htm

Indigo Information for Professionals: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/professionals/products_us/indigo.htm

U:fit Fitting Software: www.unitronhearing.us/ccus/professionals/fittingsoftware/ufit.htm
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Brian Kinnerk

President of Unitron US



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