If there’s one thing AHead Simulations founder Rob Koch wants you to take away from this story, it’s this—don’t stick Q-tips in your ears.
But before we get to that, we’ll start at the beginning of Koch’s entrepreneurial journey at Western University in London, Ontario. Koch was studying electrical engineering for his undergraduate degree. His fourth-year capstone project involved creating a simulation for the placement of ear probe tubes.
“It’s a very specific procedure that involves placing a very small microphone into a patient’s ear canal to make acoustical measurements inside the ear. We wanted a mannequin that could help people practice that procedure since one didn’t exist,” Koch said.
His capstone team received great feedback on the project, and Koch decided to pursue that as part of his research for his graduate degree in biomedical engineering at Western. Through his research, Koch validated the simulator with real-world users.
“The last study that we did during my masters found that students who used our simulator performed better in clinical scenarios than students who did not. That was the finding that made us realize this is something that might not just be useful inside of the lab, but also across the entire industry,” Koch said.
The simulator is named CARL, and it’s a first-of-its-kind system that combines a physical patient simulator with clinical resources and a curriculum designed to maximize clinical success.
CARL can be used for everything from education to hearing healthcare to help fit hearing aids. It’s also used to train professionals to remove ear wax properly. One of the CARL units is used by audiologist and YouTuber Dr. Cliff Olsen, who produced a video showing what happens when you try cleaning your ears with a cotton swab.
“Having a camera mounted inside the head of CARL, you can watch objects as they are inserted into the ear canal. Usually that’s for training, but Dr. Cliff used it to show how putting a Q-tip in your ear doesn’t take any wax out—it actually pushes it deeper down. That’s an example where we’re using CARL not just to train clinicians, but just for overall awareness about hearing health,” Koch said.
Koch noted that the CARL simulator filled a gap in medical training. Medical schools have used full-body simulators to help train skills such as taking blood samples, sutures and stitches, and surgeries. Audiology students didn’t have any option other than to practice on live people.
“They were practicing on live classmates, on volunteers, or on themselves. They had no way to practice it on their own, so we provide tools that allow them to do so,” Koch said.
Audiology procedures can be invasive and require practice and skill to perform correctly. Some involve inserting metal instruments close to the eardrum. Hearing aid professionals need to insert material into the ear canal to get a mold for hearing aid devices.
“We heard from some people that they expected to send one student to the emergency room each year. They would have this silicone that would expand through their eardrum—quite literally get stuck inside of their canal—and they have to go to the ER for an emergency room doctor to take it out,” Koch said.
Demand for hearing aids and other ear protection devices has helped to increase awareness of the lack of proper simulation devices like CARL. Hearing aids are not only for elderly users either. Koch said younger patients suffer hearing damage at earlier ages due to earbud-style headphones and listening to higher decibel levels.
Hearing aids need to be fitted precisely to be effective. Performing these fittings is a complicated procedure that requires expertise—the kind of expertise that CARL can help develop.
“Fitting isn’t just plopping a hearing aid on someone. There is much work that goes together with the diagnosis to ultimately help them with their hearing loss,” Koch said.
AHead Simulations has clinics, colleges, and universities among their customer base. Koch noted that CARL could be used for patient education too. They are currently working on a pilot project in Toronto with a hearing aid clinic using CARL to teach their patients about the different hearing aid options available.
“It’s opening a whole new realm of not just training the professionals but also giving them a tool on which they can help the patients,” Koch added.
AHead Solutions is a graduate of our AC JumpStart and Accelerator Programs. Koch said that once they got in the door, they quickly realized the impact the Accelerator Centre and our mentors would make.
“It answers more than just how to build a business. I remember talking to Ellyn Winters-Robinson (marketing mentor) and we learned about how marketing can bring people to us instead of just outbound emails and calls. We also refined our demo and our sales process,” Koch said.
After graduating from the Accelerator Program in October 2021, AHead Solutions is focused on scaling its business. Koch said they have received increased interest from clinics as changes to market regulations are changing to allow over the counter and online purchases of hearing aid devices.
“How does that model change? Is there an opportunity for us to not just help train the clinician, but also educate the patient about their hearing loss journey in general,” Koch said.
Warby Parker and similar startups have changed the way people purchase prescription eyewear—a change that could come to the hearing aid market too. One of the major roadblocks is the need to have hearing aids be fitted to a patient. It’s a problem that Koch and the AHead Solutions team are looking into.
“Hearing loss and hearing aids are much more complex than a prescription for your glasses. I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to get there one day. What I really see as an interesting opportunity is how we can provide a tool for people to try hearing aids. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” Koch said.
As AHead Solutions continues to grow its business and team, Koch’s advice for founders is simple—you’ll never really have all the answers.
“You really have to care about what you’re building and the problem it’s solving. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes persistence to figure out what your vision really is.”