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Interview with Dr. Valentin Chapero Rueda Chief Executive Officer, Phonak Hearing Systems

Valentin Chapero Rueda

February 28, 2005
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Topic: Phonak Introduces New Digital Technology: Savia
Beck: Good Morning Valentin. I'm honored to spend a few moments with you.

Chapero: Thanks Doug. It's nice to meet you too. I am a regular reader of Audiology Online.

Beck: Thanks. I appreciate that. If you don't mind, I'd like to learn a little about your background and professional history?

Chapero: Certainly. I was born in Spain and went to Germany at age five, when my parents traveled there to find work. I went to school and completed my academic training in Germany. I studied physics at the University of Heidelberg. My work had to do with applied physics related to vision. During my Ph.D. studies I spent a year in the ophthalmology department at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) working with imaging systems of the retina. I graduated with my doctorate in 1988.

Beck: After you finished your doctorate, where'd you go?

Chapero: I went to work for a computer company called Nixdorf. They were a large company in Germany and across Europe, and they were acquired by Siemens in 1990. I was working in R&D on UNIX Super-Computers and in 1992, I went to Spain and took over the Professionals Service Division of Siemens-Nixdorf. In 1996, I became the CEO of Siemens Hearing Instrument Division in Germany. I realized how high tech, dynamic and complex the business was -- and it was a wonderful experience for me. I learned the hearing instrument business is very much a person-to-person business, so it had everything I was looking for and was quite a nice fit for me.

Beck: And apparently it was a wonderful experience for Siemens too. I read you tripled their revenues while you were "at the helm" in Germany?

Chapero: Yes, well, I had the good fortune to be there during the paradigm shift from analog to digital instruments -- it was good to be there. I started in May, 1996, and stayed until 1999, at which time I took over the Mobile Network Business at Siemens, and that was a rather large, global business. I ran that until October, 2002, at which time, I received a phone call from Andy Rihs, one of the founders of Phonak. He told me about the CEO position which was open. I was very interested and started as CEO at Phonak in 2002.

Beck: What can you tell me regarding where Phonak was when you started, as compared to where it is now, and where it's going?

Chapero: Phonak has been very strong historically in "high-technology" markets: directional microphones, high-power BTEs and FM systems for adult and pediatric patient populations. Our overall professional image has been excellent, and well deserved. That said, the world changes, and we needed to change too, to maintain our position and reputation. In particular, hearing healthcare professionals prefer to buy products from only two or three manufacturers to supply everything, and so we resolved to diversify and broaden our product portfolio to include a comprehensive range of digital hearing solutions in every price category. Consequently, our aim is to increase our market share in North America and Europe, and expand our geographic reach to the Pacific Rim, Asia and Japan.

Beck: My recollection is that BTEs are actually the mainstream product in Japan, so perhaps that would be a relatively easier market for you to establish a foothold in?

Chapero: Yes, exactly right. Then again, it's a delicate balance because we wanted to capitalize on our past strengths as an established leader in BTEs, while establishing ourselves as a leading manufacturer of custom-made ITE devices. I am happy to tell you we've succeeded in both areas, as we have increased sales of both BTE and ITE technology in all of our world markets. Furthermore, I believe Phonak is second to none in terms of product offerings across different categories, prices and technologies.

Beck: As you expand your product lines and your geographic representation, what do you do to maintain your leadership role in the US and Europe?

Chapero: Across the USA and Europe we're introducing the next generation digital product, called "Savia." It was first presented at the UHA conference in Germany in the fall of 2004. Doug, you know the UHA conference is the European equivalent of the AAA meeting, more or less, but perhaps some of the readers may not be aware of it. Savia's innovations are based on "digital bionics," which is the application of biological principles to the study and design of engineering systems, motivated by the fact that evolution has optimized biological solutions to the max. Our focus with Savia, the most advanced product ever offered by Phonak, has been to build on our "audiologic-know-how" and the latest technology to provide a device that adapts perfectly to all listening environments for individual patients. This has been achieved by incorporating four basic systems: AutoPilot, AutoFocus, Sound Cleaning, and Datalogging. These systems were designed to operate automatically and efficiently to optimize hearing aid performance for each individual user. In essence, we've captured the wisdom gained from previous Phonak hearing instruments and combined it with outstanding computing power and merged it all into Savia. For example, the "dual-base" programming of Claro and Perseo has been expanded to enable Savia's AutoPilot system to automatically navigate between four basic hearing aid environments: calm listening situations, speech in noise, noise alone, or music. In addition, Savia can automatically engage a telephone and/or FM program, when appropriate. These features, which we collectively call "Sound Navigation," are unique to Savia in the hearing aid industry.

Beck: The Savia automatically detects the presence of an FM transmitter? That is amazing. What about directional microphone capabilities in Savia?

Chapero: Well Doug, we are really excited about our directional microphone technology. In fact, Savia uses a new 20-channel frequency-adaptive beamforming microphone algorithm called "digital Surround Zoom."
It's the most advanced directional microphone system we've ever developed. Its high resolution of directionality provides significant benefits as soon as more than one noise source is present, and it even suppresses moving noise sources. Keep in mind, Doug, Phonak pioneered the recent interest in directional hearing aid microphones when we introduced AudioZoom in 1994. With SurroundZoom, we have re-established ourselves as the market leader in preservation of signal-to-noise ratio; as you know, Kochkin's MarkeTrak survey data indicated that directional microphones are the single most important factor related to hearing aid satisfaction.

Beck: Valentin, I read something about "Real Ear Sound" in some of the Savia marketing literature. What does that mean?

Chapero: "Real Ear Sound" is one of the features (along with SurroundZoom) of the AutoFocus system used with Savia, and has to do with improving sound localization and natural sound quality in BTE instruments. With a traditional BTE, the microphone placement negatively impacts the concha and pinna effect, and hence, cancels the natural ability of the ear to perceive directional cues. Savia enhances the pinna and concha effect in software, providing users of the Savia BTE with the front-to-back localization ability of an in-the-ear, custom made product.

Beck: What about "Datalogging"? I remember the early 3M MemoryMate hearing aid incorporated that feature a long time ago.

Chapero: Yes, that's true. However, one of the big limits was that Datalogging at that time was perceived more as a research tool than a clinical tool. With Savia's Datalogging system, total wearing time and volume control adjustments within each user program are monitored and calculated. The average gain changes to each program can be applied by a click of a button as part of the Datalogging screen. This enables efficient and effective communication between clinicians and patients. It ensures that Savia settings are ideal for each patient in every listening situation with minimal effort.

Beck: What about reverberation time? I read that Savia has the ability to reduce reverberation time too?

Chapero: Excellent question. One of the features within the Sound Cleaning system in Savia is called "Echo Block." Echo Block addresses reverberation problems caused by temporal smearing between words...it is amazing technology. Echo Block works in combination with the other Sound Cleaning features, including Feedback Phase Inversion, Noise Cancellation and Wind Noise Management, to ensure pleasant listening experiences in the most difficult listening environments.

Beck: Incredible. It sounds like this circuit has a lot of horsepower!

Chapero: Yes, it really does. We use 6 million transistors in Savia, and to put that in perspective, Claro has about 1 million transistors. This technology is referred to as 0.13 micron technology (spoken as 'zero-point-one-three") and I am quite sure we're the first to apply this to the hearing aid industry, and it has remarkable ability and does represent a significant achievement.

Beck: Is the Savia available in a CIC?

Chapero: Yes, it is available as a CIC, ands it also has a remote control option!

Beck: Valentin, I'm really pleased to hear about the advances you're making, this is wonderful news. Nonetheless, I wonder if you can comment on this....What happens sometimes in our industry, is that technology advances without benefit of outcomes-based, or evidence-based research to validate that patients are actually perceiving and receiving the benefits the technology delivers. So, if I may, I'd like to respectfully ask...will Phonak be delivering outcomes data to accompany the official AAA release of the Savia?

Chapero: That is a very good and important concern, and a wonderful question. Yes. Savia actually represents not just a new product, but indeed an entirely new hardware and software platform for us. We have spent the last four years researching and developing this platform, product, algorithms, fitting software and new fitting protocols, including demonstration and explanation tools for the hearing healthcare professionals to use with the patients. So we have an exciting new technology, and we have excellent clinical results based on localization enhancement, patient preferences and other measures too, and of course, these will be available for the professionals by the AAA convention. In addition, we have studies underway to provide evidence-based support for SurroundZoom, Datalogging, Real Ear Sound, and Echo Block features.

Beck: Valentin, before I let you run, can you tell me your thoughts as to what we can each do to help expand the market?

Chapero: Well, there are no "magic bullets" or easy solutions here. The key element to expanding the market is effective and personal one-on-one communication. The Internet is very helpful too, as an information portal. I think one-on-one discussions with patients and community service groups, schools, businesses and, of course, healthcare professionals; physicians, nurses, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists etc., is the key. I think we all need to work together to talk about and present to the public and professionals some of the amazing attributes of the new products, which have overcome so many of the limitations from the past. We really have a lot to offer as a profession and as an industry which positively impacts the quality of life of many of our patients....but we still need to work hard to get the word out, and that is the challenge.

Beck: Excellent Valentin! Thanks so much for your time and knowledge. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

Chapero: Thank you too, Doug. It really is nice to meet with you, and I enjoyed your interest in our products and company.

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For more information on PHONAK, visit www.Phonak.com.

For more information on SAVIA, view the Savia brochure, or visit the Savia section of the corporate website.

There you will find user-friendly (animated) information, including a color presenter. View animated information. And you will find a comprehensive presentation of the Savia features. View comprehensive information.
2 recorded webinars | Tele-Audiology Today presented in partnership with Salus University | Samantha Kleindienst Robler, AuD, Ph


Valentin Chapero Rueda

Chief Executive Officer, Phonak Hearing Systems