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Pathways to Hearing with Audra Renyi of earAccess

“Your average hearing aid retails for about $2,000. These things cost as little as $50 to manufacture or less. So as you can imagine, there’s a huge disconnect there.”

Audra Renyi, Founder of earAccess

In this episode

Join Audra Renyi of SheEO Venture earAccess, and SheEO founder Vicki Saunders, as they chat about providing access to quality, affordable hearing care—particularly in developing countries. earAccess works to ensure that the millions of people who need hearing aids have access to quality devices, diagnostic testing, and proper care.

They also discuss:

  • The personal connections that led her to start earAccess and advocate for hearing care
  • Her company’s focus on emerging markets where the need is the greatest
  • Training programs run by earAccess which employ 75% women
  • Providing affordable hearing care + screening services at scale
  • The current systems in place leading to a gap in the market, and how this model can be solved
  • Addressing the stigma behind hearing aids, hearing loss, and shifting cultural motivations

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Audra Renyi 0:00
Your average hearing aid retails for about $2,000. These things cost as little as $50 to manufacture or less. So as you can imagine, there’s a huge disconnect there.

Hannah Cree 0:11
Welcome to the SheEO.World podcast, where you will meet women who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable. Your host for today’s podcast is the founder of SheEO, Vicki Saunders. Welcome to SheEO.World.

Vicki Saunders 0:29
Welcome Audra. So excited to have you here today on the SheEO.World podcast.

Audra Renyi 0:34
Thank you. It’s great to be here, Vicki.

Vicki Saunders 0:36
So tell us all about you who you are, what your company is, and why you’re doing it.

Audra Renyi 0:40
Right. So I’m an entrepreneur, you know, originally, my background was in finance, I did a stint in investment banking in New York in a previous life. Spent a few years in Africa doing volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, really in kind of a micro finance space. And about 10 years ago, I really got involved in hearing loss. And, you know, this is a cause that touched me personally, my family, both my father, and my aunt had hearing loss since they were kids. So it’s you know, I’ve grown up with with families with wearing hearing aids, what I didn’t realize was how big this issue was, and affects 1.5 billion people around the world, many of them children. And that’s how I got, you know, into this space and really found my calling in life was just to find solutions that to access to hearing aids and hearing health services. So I founded earAccess, which is a company headquartered here in Montreal, to truly find, you know, big solutions. And so what we do is, we, we provide a line of affordable hearing aids, six different products in the line from sort of entry level to higher end under the access brand. And our focus is really on mostly on emerging markets where the need is the greatest and and we’re hearing aids remain vastly unaffordable. And we also provide training programs for people locally to provide the hearing aids mostly women, 75% of the people we train on the ground are women. And, and we also increasingly are providing services at scale. So mass screenings in places like the Philippines, which is one of the countries we’re very active. And so our ultimate goal is is really to to reach the underserved those people who currently simply do not have access to this care to these products, because they’re either a unaffordable, which is one of the problems, but to is also the issue around, you know, access, not enough people trained on the ground to fit them. So Guatemala has one audiologist for the whole country.

Vicki Saunders 2:47
Oh my god.

Audra Renyi 2:48
Imagine. And she’s actually trained in Canada. So that’s really what we’re about, and ultimately about enabling people, children adults to, to reach their full potential through access to hearing care and really be able to connect to the world have better mental health, you know, outcomes, and and, and really just be able to live a fulfilling life.

Vicki Saunders 3:08
Okay, well, so let’s get into the sort of systems challenges around this. So tell us a little bit about like, our hearing aids, expensive, they are here in North America, where I’m based, tell us a little bit about like what the marketplace looks like.

Audra Renyi 3:23
Sure. So your average hearing aid retails for about $2,000, whether you’re in Canada, or in Nairobi, Kenya, the price is kind of the same around the world, these things cost as little as $50, to manufacturer, or less. So it’s very much of a very high margin business. And it’s very much of a low volume, high margin business around the world. So as I mentioned earlier, there’s about 1.5 billion people who have hearing loss. And if you only include those people with sort of moderate and above, which really means they have disabling hearing loss is about 500 million people, most of them could benefit from hearing aids. But currently, there are only about 14 million hearing aids sold worldwide, a year, most of them in North America and Western Europe and Japan and sort of high income countries. And the guess is that, you know, probably a million units for the entire rest of the, you know, lower income, middle income countries. So as you can imagine, there’s a huge disconnect there. That’s happening. And this is really a big market gap. So that’s one of the one of the market dynamic issues that we face. And the second one is this issue of lack of trained people to fit the hearing aids do the testing and the follow up. So again, you know, a country like, a country like Peru, 30 million people, 10 audiologists, so that kind of gives you a sense. So those are some of the dynamics that we see currently in the markets. And so as you can imagine, for someone living in Kenya, with hearing aids are just unaffordable, and they can’t even, you know, they can’t access them.

Vicki Saunders 4:58
Whenever you hear this, you’re just like, “This makes no sense,” which is obviously what you did. And when you saw all this and heard all of this, and then got involved, and so what makes the what is the problem between the $50 to manufacture and the $2,000 worth sold? Talk to us about the that chain.

Audra Renyi 5:15
So you know, if you ask people in the industry, they all point fingers at each other, the manufacturers, you know, a lot of people point fingers at the manufacturers because of their margins on the product and the wholesale prices. But the manufacturers will sort of point a finger at the audiologist and the hearing aid retailers where we do find that that’s where a lot of the markup comes in, like four or 5x the price so but the audiologist and the hearing aid retailers will tell you well, it’s very hard to make a living and cover all these overhead costs. Unless, because because it is a high—it is a low volume model focus on those people who can really the top, you know, 5-10 percent that can afford and the way the model is structured, they need to be making more margin and hearing aids. So it depends on who you ask. But ultimately, several middle men and women or people end up you know, creating those markups. And so one of the, you know, our solution is to cut out some of those middle people from the process and to go directly to consumer and to be able to do high volume at much lower margins.

Vicki Saunders 6:19
And so are there. Like how many manufacturers exist in the world? Is that where one of the problems are as well?

Audra Renyi 6:26
There are five major manufacturers it’s been consolidating over the years, a lot of you know, a lot of m&a in this in this field bet by major manufacturers that have about 90% of the market share. And so it is very—most of them are in Europe. So most of the concentration of the large manufacturers are in Europe. And so it’s a very, you know, a lot of the manufacturing is within the hands of a few big corporations.

Vicki Saunders 6:54
Yeah. I mean, I am listening to and engaged with lots of people who are solving systemic issues all over the world around a lot of different sectors. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard such a like egregious difference between like 14 million sold, and 1.5 billion in need, or even the 500 million and they’d like it just if you think markets solve things, which yeah, we’re all starting to learn. They don’t. Say more. I don’t understand why it’s like this.

Audra Renyi 7:25
Yeah. So so there’s definitely an element. And that’s the, that’s the part, part of the solution is the price, the affordability, and then the access the distribution and finding alternative distribution models. It’s just really what we’re creating new distribution models. There’s a third element here called stigma. And you might have had that, you know, experience with your family, at some point someone in the family needs, the hearing aid might not feel like they want because they’re associated with being older, they, you know, for whatever reason, will put off that decision. And that’s something we also work on is a messaging to people about why it’s important to act. Now, first of all, in many of these countries working, they’re not even getting tested regularly, like in Canada, actually, you know, I never got tested in school. And, you know, these were not things that we had regularly like that, not as often certainly as vision tests or other kinds of tests. So that’s already kind of a public policy issue. But then then there’s this question of stigma and reticence to, you know, wait longer. what’s what’s what’s really interesting, and this is actually out of Johns Hopkins, a lot of work has been done on showing the impact of hearing loss on decline and dementia, you know, some of the correlation of schizophrenia, you know, and Alzheimers. And so there are studies now coming out showing that a hearing aid can slow down the progression of some of these, you know, mental health and brain diseases.

Vicki Saunders 8:48
Oh, my God. Yeah, there you go.

Audra Renyi 8:50
So these are some of the arguments that you know, really, we see as as one of one of the reasons why people who might need hearing aids might not want them right away, or might choose to postpone that decision. These are some of the arguments that really get people thinking about well, is this am I making a choice between an aesthetic, you know, product, and my mental and my brain health? Right? And that really speaks to people.

Vicki Saunders 9:14
Oh, you just gave me a whole—now there’s a sales point to get people that you know, and need that. That’s a that’s a fascinating thing. Again, getting underneath to the cultural motivations, what has existed in the past and to try and shift behaviors. That’s really powerful. So audiologists being another thing, just that the public health issues, I think, is really interesting. So tell us a little bit about where you are right now, with your business where you’d like to go and how we can help.

Audra Renyi 9:42
Well, so currently, you know, we have, we’ve launched we’ve now been selling our product line. For several years, we’ve been operating in different geographies, including places like Guatemala, Philippines. In the Middle East, we’ve been in Qatar and other places, Chile and we’re now really looking at the next phase of growth and the big vision for us, we want to be the number one leader for hearing aids in emerging markets, bottom line. We think that this is something that, you know, we can, you know, we really excited about about, you know, really being that that company that focuses on these areas that are really underserved, and that a lot of these companies are ignoring, because, you know, you’re just in their more traditional model, and all they need to do is grow at the aging population rate in the United States, and they’ve done their, you know, they’ve done their profits for the year. So this this, this kind of shift on this really focus for us is on lower and middle income countries. With I would say, in our in our plan for growth, there’s certainly, you know, a lot of people have asked us about this Canada, hearing aids or expense can be expensive here, too. So what about Canada, so certainly, that’s something that down the road, we are, we are looking at exploring as well. And SheEO to date, has been, you know, an amazing part of the the support that we’ve gotten. And, and in particular, during the pandemic, we’ve done a big shift online, and that funding that we received from SheEO has really helped us accelerate some of that, you know, conversion online, being able to do sort of an omni channel approach online, in person, bricks and mortar. And so that’s, that’s been hugely helpful. And the other thing that I think SheEO has been very helpful with was with the venture advisor, you know, Lauren, who advises us as has been terrific. And so we have these bi-weekly calls, where we really talk about, you know, the big vision, the strategy, as an entrepreneur, you’re often just really busy on your day to day operations. And it’s really, it’s great to take a step back, and really think about the opportunities, the bigger vision, the things that, you know, repeatedly you’ve thought about as you’re growing your business, but sometimes you don’t create enough space for that. And it’s as much about the venture adviser herself. And you know, and her issue was tremendous experience and vision. But it’s also about just creating that space in your busy life, right. And so that’s something both of those things have been, you know, very helpful in our process. And the third thing I would say is what what we’re looking to put, I’m looking to do more of going forward is connecting even more with the SheEO community. And I think that’s again, something as an advertiser, you get busy, but but there’s so much value in this community, there’s so many amazing women doing, you know, who figured some of these things out? Right. And just that exchange is something that we’re really looking looking forward to continuing and kind of growing over time.

Vicki Saunders 12:41
Well, yeah, I mean, we are so interested to help. So it’s great to do this podcast, so that people can get to know you a little better, I just wonder, do you have a few challenges that you can sort of share that we might be helpful with, or at least to get a sense of like what the big obstacles are for you in the near future?

Audra Renyi 12:57
Yeah, I think one of them is really focusing on the transition to online you know, really looking at digital marketing experts, that’s something that we’ve we’ve worked with a few but I think we’re always open to kind of deeper expertise, we’re growing as a company in terms of our own level of knowledge. So kind of deep expertise in digital marketing. And you know, the trends certainly is one and as this is really a part of our expansion plan and scalability plan is to to be able to grow this outside of our current market, some the online sales side into, you know, recurring issue or with friends or partners, but we are looking, we’re actually going to be going on a on a large raise later this year. So, right now, our venture advisors, certainly supporting us a lot on that, you know, creation, finalizing updating the pitch deck and these kind of materials, which has been very helpful. But certainly I think for for other intrapreneurs, and who have gone for their kind of their series A that’s really interesting for us to connect with them. And to get kind of a, you know, trade some notes on that we’ve been financed to date mostly with, with grandson debt, and you know, and so we’re now really looking at the equity side of things. And so, you know, just, I think being able to get some, you know, some some some advice and help along that journey would be great.

Vicki Saunders 14:16
Okay, great. We can definitely help with that. And I maybe just a last question or so. So you talked about being in Philippines and Guatemala and very focused on the developing nations that are emerging. So when you’re selling online, can anyone buy from anywhere? Are you really trying to target certain countries?

Audra Renyi 14:33
Right now we’re just targeting certain countries. So our online model has been launched for the Philippines. And so this is kind of that’s that’s one of our questions, too, is how to how to scale that, you know, either on a regional basis because there are certain requirements, you know, there’s some logistical things that come into play the ability to import hearing aids into a market. These are all the kinds of logistical challenges so most most countries require import licenses. That can be very time consuming very long. It’s regulatory, and it’s medical devices. So it just takes forever, and it can be very expensive. So we’re, we’re looking at ways to address that challenge so that we can scale more efficiently, you know, faster across these markets. So that’s certainly I would say, one of our, one of our top upcoming challenges.

Vicki Saunders 15:15
Right, and so the and the process for doing that is is like, a takes a long time. Is that correct?

Audra Renyi 15:19
Well, the process for doing that for us, and one of the solutions that we’re seeing, and this is still, you know, that it’s evolving, is is working on with, with the manufacturer, that we really, you know, with the plant that that, you know, we are with our hearing aids that that allows us to get, you know, to partner in terms of finding, getting some of that regulatory work and or having clearance on some of these countries. So, it’s really, we see this as a kind of a partnership approach.

Vicki Saunders 15:46
Got it. Okay, cool.

Audra Renyi 15:47
I just want to share a story, because I think, you know, hearing loss, we often think of adults, and that was a lot of the bulk of the hearing loss is there. But there are a lot of children with hearing loss. And that’s one of our focus areas. And I just remember, early on when I started this journey, this this boy, we had met in the field, and he was both seven years old, he was getting fitted with hearing aids for the first time. And when he heard the technicians, you know, say his name, he started giggling, so excited. And then his father walked into the room and called out his name. And when he turned around and saw his father, he ran into his arms and just burst into tears. Because that was the first time he was hearing his father’s voice. And he was connecting that person with that voice. And it was just like, everyone was in tears. And of course, you know, that’s just the start of a journey for somebody who’s hanging for the first time. But I just, I just want to highlight how transformative it is, it can be to get access to the help. And that’s really why we do this. And ultimately, you know, it can it can change somebody’s life.

Vicki Saunders 16:54
Thank you so much for that story. And thank you, for you. Such a gift. It’s just so fascinating to hear what you’re doing and a huge challenge that we’re facing in the world with a really innovative approach to it and personal connections, as well. So thank you so much for sharing your story here today. We’re really very thrilled to be supporting your work and really, really thankful for how you’re using your leadership in the world at this moment in time. So thank you.

Audra Renyi 17:19
Thank you. Thank you very much. Thanks for all the support from SheEO. It’s really appreciated.

Hannah Cree 17:26
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women at SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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