The Future of Hearing: How USound is Leveraging Technology to Reach 400MM+ People with Hearing Loss

Gonzalo Simons
Co-Founder at USound
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Speaker 1 (00:15):

You're listening to the TechTables podcast. A weekly Q&A podcast dedicated to interviewing industry leaders from across the world, ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Mixing it up each week with topics ranging from design and product innovation, to IOT and industry 4.0. Let's do this.

Joe Toste (00:33):

Hey guys, we're back for another week in the world of TechTables with me, Joe Toste. I'd love to connect with you behind the scenes on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. There you can leave a message for me, questions for future guests coming on the show. But today we're going to shift our focus to healthcare, and lean on the experience and insight of Gonzalo Simons, co-founder at uSound, a startup focused on democratizing healthcare and focusing on serving the 400 million people with hearing loss around the globe. A huge thank you to Gonzalo for taking time from Argentina this morning to chat with me. But that's quite enough from me. Without further ado, I'm thrilled to welcome Gonzalo Simons, Co-founder at uSound. Hey, welcome to the show, Gonzalo.

Gonzalo Simons (01:08):

Thanks Joe, it's a pleasure.

Joe Toste (01:11):

Awesome. Hey, let's kick off today a little bit about your startup career working in Argentina and your background at uSound with the focus on democratizing healthcare. Let's start there.

Gonzalo Simons (01:22):

Yeah, for sure. Well, all this story, like 10 years ago, just a group of friends wanting to help a friend of ours, have hearing loss, but he couldn't afford a hearing aid. As you know it's very expensive, worldwide it's almost $5,000 to acquire a pair of hearing aids. So we made him an app. So instead of buying this expensive tool, we create an app where our friend could hear better. Well, the real situation was he could return to the university, we built a successful 10 years startup and now we are in Argentina based, of course wanting to spread all over the world.

Joe Toste (02:03):

That's awesome. So the story was you had a friend 10 years ago, lost his hearing and that was kind of the driver for launching uSound?

Gonzalo Simons (02:15):

Yeah, at that time, the smartphone was not well known as using only for Facebook or maybe for some messages. We think together what could happen if the smartphone now could be a tool for hearing better? These whole situation led us create this app. We participate in many championships, we won the Imagine cup in 2013, we went to Russia and competing until the finals and from that point, we think that the [prob 00:02:45] was not only for our friend, but also for 400 million people around the world with hearing loss and almost 90% of them cannot access to a hearing aid. So they meet in the market and the opportunity to help all these people was already done.

Joe Toste (03:02):

Yeah, that's actually an incredible stat that you mentioned. The 400 million people around the world and around 90% are in third world countries. And so, how do you get access, right? The hardware is expensive, but yeah, over the past 10 years, especially when we think about it with phones and technology and what you can do with a phone, it's really been.... It's spreading, which kind of leads me to my first question. So why don't we chat about digital health and wearables? You gave a presentation in partnership with Samsung. You highlighted be disruptive, I think obviously being disruptive is very powerful, but what does that mean to you today?

Gonzalo Simons (03:44):

Well, for me being disruptive is not only to create a new thing or a new tool. It's to convert a weakness into a strength. For us, our customers are people with a disability. Are people that don't have the same possibilities as anyone in the world. So it's not that like creating a new Facebook tool or a new Instagram tool. I'm creating a thing for you Joe, for example, to hear better. From that point, the disruption itself is to empower that people. I'm totally [inaudible 00:04:16] that the wearables on the healthcare industry nowadays is not only to prevent or to treat something, is to convert a weakness, natural weakness, into an opportunity to be better.

Gonzalo Simons (04:28):

I'm totally fascinated with the replacement of legs and hands, for example, and what could happen if the new tools of the replacement in plastic or other materials could be better than the actual hands, for example, legs. That's seems crazy, but today more than ever, the opportunity to introduce digital healthcare into the people in their lives, it's going to be more important than ever. I hope that with this example, the disruption could be so easy and the technology has already done. So for me, disruptive is to be better every day and empower people every day.

Joe Toste (05:08):

Yeah, and what I really like about this is, as you didn't start in saying, "Hey, being disruptive is we need an app. Or being disruptive is we need to XYZ technology." You really start with the problem, right? And the problem is the 400 million people. It's a big problem. And I really liked that. So as far as being disruptive, there has to be a customer problem from a business standpoint. And if you can't kind of drill down on what the customer problem is, whatever technology you're going to use, it just won't matter. So I really like starting with that. This actually dovetails pretty well with on an earlier episode I had, Aaron Mitchell and Jeff Whitlock, respective startup founders from Freeplay and Unbird on the show. Aaron said the most common mistake he sees from founders is building for vision, not for customers. How is uSound building for its customers today?

Gonzalo Simons (06:05):

Well, that's a great question. And as you said before, the most important for us was not the product, was our friend. Because maybe it was not an app, maybe it was, I don't know, another wearable or a watch. But we find out that this guy not only has hearing loss, but also couldn't hear aid, couldn't afford a hearing aid. So talking with them, we find out that the impossibility to access to a better hearing only for a cost, it's the major pain you can have in your life. Machine that you can not have enough money to pay a tool to hear better. And when we go to the healthcare industry, it's all spread. We find out that the people, maybe sometimes they don't have the resources to afford a minimum healthcare requires. And after we took the cost and after we analyze the cost and say, "okay, we can be 10 times, 50 times less cost than a traditional solution," we find out that there were more problems, not only the cost. And what's the perception of the public people?

Gonzalo Simons (07:17):

Imagine yourself hearing loss, Joe, 15 years old, just looking at your smartphone. You want to play with your friends, just the games. And you can't do it. Why? Because you can't hear them. And what do you feel? You use a hearing aid, okay. And after the hearing aid for example breaks, or maybe has some issue, and you start from zero or from the scratch again. So this pain point is the most important for our customers. After we deliver for example a hearing aid on our app, we instantly connect with them and try to live through his life. How he feels, how he do, how he buy the grocery shop, how can they connect with their families and friends? So the connections that this life, these personal customer persona lives, is more important than the product itself.

Gonzalo Simons (08:09):

And you know why Joe, maybe in 10 years, in 20 years, there's going to be new tools, new artificial intelligence, for example, or new robotics tools that can let people hear better than the normal hearing maybe. But the problem is not the technology. The problem is the connections of the feelings that this person leaves from his born, to the time he pass away. So for us, this whole life, this 80 years of customer personal life, is the most important to analyze this.

Joe Toste (08:41):

Yeah, and I think to followup on that, I was reading some research from Stanford Medicine and one of the interesting things that I was reading, I didn't know this, was hearing loss actually, it's nothing that quickly happens to you, it happens very slowly over time. And so being able to constantly... I actually downloaded the uSound App. So if you guys are interested, definitely download the app. I downloaded on my iPhone, I did the hearing check, it came back at normal in both ears, which is always really great. I'm sure my wife will keep testing me over time to make sure when I say I can't hear her, she's going to say, "get back on the app. I want to see some results." But it was relishing, from Stanford, as far as the slow progression of actually losing your hearing.

Joe Toste (09:28):

So I think this problem is really fascinating and especially going out and helping the kids and the people in countries outside of the United States. It's super, super powerful. And I think following up to that question, when it comes to actually building the product from scratch, we talk about... So you've got a great problem. And then we have to think about it from how do we take this problem and put it in a framework and really flush it out. So what frameworks, what exercises does the uSound team go through when building a product or thinking about the product and building it from scratch?

Gonzalo Simons (10:09):

Well, I think the most important are three tools that we use today. We have been using for 10 years from the beginning. One of the tools is the connection with the medical staff and the hearing healthcare professionals. That's, it's crucial and [inaudible 00:10:27] because the hearing industry from the beginning to now, it has been controlled and managed by the hearing aid professionals. So the people that is in charge of the transformation in this industry should be the professional. Is the people that stay every day with the patients, they treat them, they diagnose them. So we have a framework, but we work with five hearing healthcare professionals in Argentina and in Latin America. And with them, we have like a consultation team that if a tool is good enough, if it's possible to them to provide not only the content and the theories, but also to try them in a quality test period.

Gonzalo Simons (11:10):

After this check with a healthcare professionals, we go to the development team. The technology team here, it's crucial because it's not that they're coding an app to play a game on Instagram. You are coding to detect and to treat hearing loss with high volumes. So that's when you pass the [inaudible 00:11:33] of medical and you combine technology and medical, you have not only an opportunity but also a responsibility. And we have a framework with our CTO that they control every going process up to the time that is launching and quality test with the healthcare professional board.

Gonzalo Simons (11:51):

The another tool is that to go out of the market and talk directly with customers. So for example, me I'm one of the [inaudible 00:12:00] in uSound. I'm in charge of the strategy direction of the company. And I'm the first person that goes directly to the Facebook groups, with people with hearing loss and starting to talk with them. Maybe from during 10 years, maybe you having talked with 10,000 to 20,000 people with hearing loss. So we know exactly how maybe we can help them. After the product launch, after the check by the healthcare professional board, we talk directly to them. And the framework is, first of all of the frameworks, is the framework that we talk directly with the customer personal, with the people that is going to use our app. So now with the last launch of a tool for healthcare professionals, now we have launched not only an app but also an audiometer tool for them.

Gonzalo Simons (12:48):

We work exactly with these three steps. First of all, talk with the customer. Second, talk with our advisory board and health care professionals. And third of all and finally, talk with the technology team and the CTO and program all this feedback that is most valuable than anything. We use this strategy because we have learned a lesson many years ago that some advisor told us that one thing is the effort that you put in developing something new. Maybe you can build a new product and it can last two to three years before launching. And maybe the product is not good enough. And why? Because the product doesn't have the value, the real value, and the customer.

Gonzalo Simons (13:36):

And maybe we have found out that some of our apps that we have launched in two months only for example, we will launch now an app that only have two months, and we instantly have 1,000 downloads and people using it. So the are real value, it's incredible. And you say, "what is the problem? Is the focus that I put on?" Maybe it's not the focus, maybe it's to talk first with the customer, then with the professional and after that with the team and create about the feedback.

Joe Toste (14:07):

Yeah, that's really great. And when it comes to talking with the team, I just want to have a quick transition to distribute work. You sound... How do you guys work together? How do you guys empower the employees with agility and speed as you guys work anywhere around the world?

Gonzalo Simons (14:24):

Well, yeah, this is a new growth path for our company because during the first years we have been working in [procession 00:14:31]. We have our to go work-in space in Argentina and with the transition through COVID, we find out that the possibility to work remote is going to be like a new era. So we're refining but it's most probably done maybe 70 to 80% of our team remains remote. And only for special actions, maybe they come to the office, but the transition to the division of the business units now is more important than ever.

Gonzalo Simons (15:02):

For example, we have the technology team, the quality assurance team, the commercial team, the post-sales teams, the management team, of course the hardware team that creates not only the app but also the hardware combination. So you have almost seven to eight business units. Working remote it's maybe the major challenge for us right now. So we are just like a child, learning all the process and of course, taking the rest tools and trying to compensate the weaknesses of this new system.

Joe Toste (15:36):

That's awesome. And just for context for the audience, how many employees, how big is uSound?

Gonzalo Simons (15:41):

Well nowadays we have 20 people running on the team.

Joe Toste (15:45):

That's awesome, love that. Okay, so I hinted over about Stanford Medicine a little bit earlier but... So Stanford Medicine listed three trends, I read about, shaping the democratization of healthcare. One intelligent computing, two data-sharing, three data security, privacy, and safety. What's catching your eye right now?

Gonzalo Simons (16:07):

Well for us to democratize healthcare, these three are crucial. The security of data after all these volume of data, and now people signing up in any app that they can find out. When we're talking about healthcare, it's very special because it's an industry that was almost 100% of the process regulated. So we have digital healthcare and regular healthcare. Nowadays, with the COVID transition, the digital healthcare is the new healthcare. And all people is talking about telemedicine, teleaudilogy. For example, in Argentina now we are working like a teleaudilogy concept that how the professionals and healthcare professionals audiologists can work from home and detect hearing loss and treat hearing loss.

Gonzalo Simons (16:54):

To complement these three that you say like data and security, I think the most important here now is the teaching and learning process of the healthcare professionals. For example nowadays, we have a webinar or some workshops where we teach them how they can connect with their customers through more web platforms, how they can make a follow up that cannot be like an old one, but also using Zoom or using some new tools that nowadays we can use it. You know what, show the change, I think it's going to be a game changer of the industry. Imagine yourself that worldwide by 2013, there are going to be a gap of 19 million healthcare professionals just to provide a support and covers the 1013 global development goals of healthcare.

Gonzalo Simons (17:48):

So imagine yourself that teaching them, I had these people or these healthcare professionals, is more important than ever. So the healthcare teaching and the new platform process for healthcare professionals is going to be so important now that for the next 10 to 20 years.

Joe Toste (18:07):

That's great. So just as we quickly wrap up, I have something called the 60 second TechTables segment. What's the number one problem that you're trying to solve right now at uSound on the mobile side?

Gonzalo Simons (18:19):

Well, the hardest part now it's going to be, I think, to control and to understand the new customer persona in our customers, because our customers are not the same. They [became 00:18:32] friendly nowadays with the COVID situation, they are going to remain more at home and going to give healthcare support only for the critical issues. So we have to just recreate the strategy and rethink some processes and some customer processes that are more important than ever now. So I think it's going to be the hardest part. We are actually working with our team and we are preparing like a one-year plan from here to 2021, where we are going to teach not only the healthcare professionals, but to prepare them to supply with the new tools that uSound is going to launch. So that's the hardest part.

Joe Toste (19:15):

That's awesome. Okay, so very quickly under 60 seconds, question number one. What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your journey with uSound?

Gonzalo Simons (19:24):

Well, the same things that I'm talking to you about defining the customer persona and talking with your customers. I would like to know like a couple of years before, because we renewed the contract. We started with the product and after the product we go to the market and we crashed several times, and the good ones are really tall, but the difficulties is you can't go to a market without really understanding the market and you can't launch a product. So maybe make it very simple, very very simple, maybe in a piece of paper, and after another we can talk,

Joe Toste (20:01):

Oh, I love that. And I'm sure every opportunity of going to market and iterating, it's not failure, right? I mean, you're really learning each and every time. And every entrepreneur, every startup goes through that. Okay, easy question, favorite Netflix show?

Gonzalo Simons (20:19):

Wow. Unorthodox. I'm totally fascinated with Unorthodox.

Joe Toste (20:24):


Gonzalo Simons (20:27):

Do you know that?

Joe Toste (20:28):

I do not, no.

Gonzalo Simons (20:30):

Okay. I recommend you to watch it, it's mind changing. It's about the Jewish community in Brooklyn, how it's a civic community, so that they're going to understand from the very first perspective the life of Jewish people there. I think it's the first series that really explain or describes this. So I find it really interesting.

Joe Toste (20:55):

Okay, I'll definitely link that in the show notes and my wife and I we'll have to check it out. Last one, favorite experience, traveling the world for business. I know we didn't highlight it too much, but I know you've been to Russia, you've been to Korea. Favorite experience traveling the world.

Gonzalo Simons (21:12):

Oh, wow. Yeah. That's ... We have like last year we went to Seoul in Korea. We won a competition about the ranking the American Development bank. We visit the Samsung headquarters. We actually have... We're working with them in Latin America. So the story was we went to the headquarters and Samsung was incredible. It's a big city, I think you have been there you told me, so when we first enter you say, "wow!" So maybe it's more in a city's in South Korea. So first of all it's your impression. After you enter there, you come to pass kind of a check-in, check-out computers, where they analyze, of course your computer. They think that it's for your safety and its own safety. Well, short long story, I was in a... After a meeting, I changed a name of a presentation, of a PowerPoint presentation, only because for some.... To understand better for the public notes for the audience that really understand better the situation in the meeting.

Gonzalo Simons (22:14):

After I went out the meeting, some police guy from there, from Samsung, told me, "maybe you have a problem, a security problem with your computer." And I say, "wow, what?" An he saw that I changed the name during the... And he know exactly the time, how I do it, what day I do it. And say, "no, but it's not for purpose. Was only for the better understanding of the presentation." Yeah, of course after half an hour that we check again all the computer, I could finally get out of their headquarters. So, it was a new experience. I'm not used in Argentina to do this kind of checking. So, yeah, it was a new [inaudible 00:22:56] for me.

Joe Toste (22:57):

No, I love that story. I have been to Samsung in Korea. I went with the CTO of our company and it was... We, were actually pitching a presentation and they actually took one of our laptops and we couldn't use it. And then they were going to take the second one, but we needed at least one for the presentation and they taped up the cameras. And... But I mean, everyone was super great. And it was a really awesome experience to have that world-traveling experience. I mean, we, the CTO and I, were just in.... Previously we were in Japan then we flew to Korea last minute, got to meet some contacts. So, yeah, that's definitely one of my favorite world-travel experiences.

Joe Toste (23:45):

Well, that's going to wrap up today's show. Hey, so where can people find you? Are you on LinkedIn, Twitter, where's your favorite hangouts?

Gonzalo Simons (23:52):

Yeah, of course. On LinkedIn I'm Gonzalo Simons, you can find me, I'm totally open. To discuss healthcare, emerging markets, anything the public may need in. In Latin America now, with this COVID transition, Latin America is hottest that ever.

Gonzalo Simons (24:09):

Of course we have a lot of talent here in Argentina, in every place of the world. In Latin America we have a lot of talents, letting my people to discover us.

Joe Toste (24:20):

Love that, awesome. Well, I appreciate the time and looking forward to sharing this episode.

Gonzalo Simons (24:26):

Yeah, of course. Thank you for the invitation again, and I hope to see you soon in US so we can finally meet and anything you may need, you have a friend here.

Joe Toste (24:35):

I love it. Thanks man.

Gonzalo Simons (24:37):

Thanks Joe.

Speaker 1 (24:39):

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Joe Toste
Joe Toste
Host of TechTables Podcast

Host of TechTables 🎙- Conversations with Top Technology Leaders