By: Louisa Xu, Somesh Dash
The quietest sound you can hear starts to deteriorate as you age, but the loudest audible sound remains constant throughout your entire life. Hearing aids traditionally work by amplifying sounds with only very coarse adjustments, from the clinking plates in a restaurant to the sound of your child’s voice. They can be incredibly painful to wear, often drowning out the sounds you want to hear with noises you don’t, and this is particularly salient in noisy public places.
There are an estimated 48 million Americans experiencing some degree of hearing loss. Despite the prevalence of the problem, the predominant hearing aid companies in the market today were built 50-100 years ago, including several multi-billion dollar public companies based in Europe that debuted before the transistor was invented. A handful of new entrants recently emerged, offering less expensive, direct-to-consumer products, but achieving quality at par with industry incumbents has remained elusive.
Enter the age of machine learning. As I discussed in a recent Forbes article, ML has quietly become part of our daily lives, powering our cars, the operations in our hospitals, and the food we eat. Not surprisingly, there are now remarkable ways that ML can improve the quality of our hearing. Today, we are excited to announce our initial investment in Whisper. When I first met the Whisper team, I knew the co-founders – Dwight, Andrew and Shlomo – were well on their way to becoming the first tech company to disrupt the global hearing aid market. Today, Whisper is launching the world’s first software-defined hearing aids, applying the technology that has fueled a digital revolution to an age-old problem. The company leverages deep learning and advanced signal processing at a granularity not previously possible to improve hearing quality. Moreover, by building a software-based solution, Whisper will be able to continuously ship new features and upgrades to existing users, much like the systems pioneered at Apple and Tesla, resulting in a product that keeps getting better over time.
Whisper’s primary innovation is building a form factor that consists of the earpiece plus a small device that is meant to fit inside a user’s pocket, the Whisper Brain. The latter contains the neural net operational unit that wirelessly communicates with the computational unit in the earpiece, supercharging the hearing aid with multiple times the processing of existing solutions. When the earpiece picks up sound, it sends it to the Whisper Brain which triggers a neural network to analyze the acoustic components, all within 1/200th of a second. The team has spent years building these neural network models by taking structured and unstructured data, augmenting it with in-house data (representing a spectrum of ages, languages, and voice types), feeding the data into neural network training, and then refining the predictions – a continuous process which improves the efficacy of the product over time.
“Whisper’s strength is in the vertical integration of hardware, software, and data to solve hearing loss. Enhancing audio for improved intelligibility within the latency requirements and form factor needs of a hearing aid is an unsolved problem by existing technology and requires a novel solution,” said Dwight Crow, co-founder and CEO of Whisper. “We believe our technology will not only help millions of people reconnect with their loved ones, but form the basis of a very defensible business.”
We invested in Whisper’s Series B alongside Sequoia, First Round, and Quiet Capital. We are incredibly excited to support a strong group of former executives from Facebook, Apple, Google, Oticon and world-class machine learning engineers that form the backbone of the company’s industry-leading advantage. We strongly believe that among the next generation of industries where ML will also have a revolutionary impact, healthcare is one the most promising. The future of hearing, primary care, clinical trials, and many other critical pieces of the healthcare puzzle will increasingly rely on intelligent systems. We are thrilled to support the Whisper team as they catalyze a new wave of ML-driven innovation in healthcare.