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Meet the Disruptor: Olive Devices

A recent Philadelphia University graduate is set to launch a hearing aid that is not only technologically revolutionary—it will also be affordable

A recent Philadelphia University graduate is set to launch a hearing aid that is not only technologically revolutionary—it will also be affordable

What were you doing after you graduated college? How many of you were puttering around and working on high-end visual art projects while working part time at the Dairy Queen near the freeway, or attempting to get a Deejay business off the ground? No one could really blame you—that post-college grace period is like a study hall from life. But 23-year-old Renee Kakareka had no time for such a grace period. She was too busy trying to change the world.

Within a month of graduating from college last summer, Kakareka had started Olive Devices, a Philadelphia-based company that’s creating a device to help the hard of hearing operate more wholly in the world. Kakareka isn’t from Philly originally; she’s from Illinois, where her acumen as a softball pitcher and outfielder netted her a scholarship to Philadelphia University. Kakareka started out studying architecture but fell in love with industrial design, which became her major. What entranced her, particularly, was the notion of doing social good through simple, accessible design practices.

“I knew that I wanted to create some kind of change in the world through the design skills that I had,” says Kakareka. “My sophomore year, we did activities where we researched certain aspects of design and presented them to the class. I did my presentation on IDEO’s social impact design; a classmate did a presentation on designing for disabilities. After that, my professor gave me a book called Design Meets Disability, and I kind of got hooked.”

Olive Devices plans to debut the FreeBell for between $300 and $500, a pittance for a Swiss Army Knife device in an expensive and constricted market. This, Williams says, could easily disrupt the stagnant hearing aid market.

Kakareka created different product ideas for a client she worked for as a college junior, including some pitches to help fight insomnia and balance issues; when she realized that her client, who suffered from a number of other physical issues related to Charcot Marie tooth disease, was also hard-of-hearing, she began to develop the idea for FreeBell—a simple, wearable device to help hard of hearing folks identify where sound is coming from, and the severity of that sound, through vibrations.

The notion didn’t come out of left field, either: Kakareka, as a result of a grade school program, can speak American Sign Language and has networked extensively with hard of hearing people. “When I was in second grade, we started learning sign language. They were incorporating hard of hearing kids into our classroom, and I was actually pretty good friends with a couple of the girls in the class,” Kakareka says. “They taught us sign language through sixth grade. My friends and I kind of used it as our secret language.”

Being so deeply involved with the deaf and hard of hearing, says Kakareka, has given her a special window into their lives, and the ability to understand what they’re looking for in devices that can help them get through the day more easily. FreeBell looks like a pair of those across-the-neck headphones—like a Samsung Level U—but without the actual speaker component. Instead, the FreeBell sits on the neck, and vibrates with alternating levels of urgency when sounds are present. For example, if you’re in a classroom and someone to your right is quietly asking to borrow your pen, FreeBell will buzz, lightly, on the right side of your neck; if someone to your left is yelling at you to get out of the way of a rampaging bull on the streets of Pamplona, FreeBell will buzz on your left side considerably more urgently.

Kakareka plans to also equip FreeBell with speech-to-text technology that will be connected to a smartphone app, so users can chart the conversations they’ve had over the course of the day, or engage in them in real time, through a sort of closed captioning service. It’s an ambitious concept, no doubt, and one that’s going to take time to develop. Olive Devices’ first test of the FreeBell device, after nearly a year of development, is going to be in the first or second week of March.

“There are products that do captioning, and some do sound localization,” says Kakareka. “But none, aside from FreeBell, do captioning and sound localization.”

Nancy Williams, a hearing advocate who is hard of hearing herself, will be setting up the test runs. Williams, who runs her own hearing advisory group called Auditory Insight, says that she was impressed by Kakareka’s idea after Kakareka asked her to write a guest blog last year; she now advises the fledgling company. Williams says users who have other common hearing aid devices, like the cochlear implant, often have difficulty pinpointing the distance and location from which sounds are being made. With FreeBell, that issue is resolved.

“What separates what Renee is working on from others is so interesting,” says Williams. “She’s stretching the definition of the form that amplification takes.”

Kakareka says Olive Devices has so far been funded through private sources, such as venture capital firm BioAdvance; it has also won or placed in several tech and business competitions.

Kakareka doesn’t just want to create another hearing aid. She wants to make sure it’s affordable, even for hard of hearing people who are underprivileged. Williams, who uses a hearing aid herself, says that the hearing aid industry is both too expensive and too monolithic. Currently, even a simple hearing aid can cost a buyer more than $2,400, (even though, Williams says, it is made up of parts that cost about $100). And if you’re looking for a live captioning device, your options are slim—most are desk phones that translate phone calls, which will set you back north of $70.

“There’s something like six companies that make mainstream hearing aids, and they control 98 percent of the market,” Williams says, adding that with such market dominance, companies can easily inflate prices.

Olive Devices, on the other hand, plans to debut the FreeBell for between $300 and $500, a pittance for a Swiss Army Knife device in an expensive and constricted market. This, Williams says, could easily disrupt the stagnant hearing aid market.

“There are products that do captioning, and some do sound localization,” says Kakareka. “But none, aside from FreeBell, do captioning and sound localization.”

“Something like 360 million people are either deaf or hard of hearing,” says Kakareka. “And only 10 percent of them are in high income areas. We’re trying to create a model that appeals to high income and low income areas.”

There’s been a pretty steep learning curve for Kakareka. She admits that she may have bitten off a little more than she could chew early in her company’s development. She was, functionally, working alone last year, and says that she overextended herself. An alpha personality to begin with—that whole playing two positions in softball and being a 23-year-old company founder thing may have clued you in—Kakareka was skeptical at first about drafting too large a workgroup for her product. But she has since put together a team, based out of Philadelphia, to help her in the development, design and marketing of the FreeBell.

“It’s been a really great learning process,” says Kakareka. It’s still an uphill climb for Olive Devices, as it is for any startup. But with Kakareka’s ambition and clarity of vision when it comes to creating the FreeBell, I wouldn’t bet against her.

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