Breakthrough technology, that allows human voice to be heard while filtering out industrial din, has put Justin Miller’s business Sensear within earshot of cornering a huge market. By TIM TREADGOLD
By Tim Treadgold
Breakthrough technology, that allows human voice to be heard while filtering out industrial din, has put Justin Miller’s business Sensear within earshot of cornering a huge market.
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Back in 2005, Justin Miller was working as a consultant at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia and “looking for the next big thing”.
It was an arduous process, which basically involved trawling through the research projects and seeing what might be commercialised. But eventually he stumbled on a bit of technology that formed the basis for Sensear, the company that he now runs.
Noise deadening headphones are a big hit with frequent flyers, but they do have one serious drawback. They block out all noise, including speech. Allowing human voices through, while eliminating background noise, is the holy grail of hearing protection devices.
Sensear tackles noise from a different direction to conventional headphones, such as those invented by the leading US sound technology firm Bose and used in its Quiet Comfort headphones. Rather than start with blocking as the primary aim, Sensear starts by first seeking out human voices and then suppressing background noise.
It was a brilliant piece of technology, but there was one problem. The first device, according to Miller, was “the size of a fridge”.
“Back then the technology worked but wasn’t in the right format and you couldn’t use it in a commercial environment,” Miller says. “The challenge was could we make it smaller, a scale-down rather than a scale-up risk.”
Three years and $4.5 million of investment later, Sensear is being sold in a product the size of a small mobile phone, with the user connected by earplugs.
Miller already has some of Australia’s biggest companies using the device – now his challenge is to go from development company to sales machine.
Sensear evolved from early work at a research body run by the University of WA and Curtin University in Perth, and the name of the product comes from its primary aim; speech enhancement noise suppression (SENS).
Boeing, Alcoa, Kenworth and OneSteel are among the early users of Sensear products, a reflection of the major target market – noisy industrial environments where hearing loss is a health risk, but where being able to hear fellow workers is an essential safety issue.
But the use of the product goes much further than that, as Miller discovered on a recent flight. Air crew, who have been forced to yell and/or wave at Bose Quiet Comfort wearers until they remove their headsets, became annoyed when Miller left his earplugs in. It took a bit of explaining before he was able to show how he could hear them, but not the background aircraft noise.
“Our sales pitch is simple,” Miller says. “Hear speech in high noise environments.
“We’ve got about 50 clients using or trialling the device. The most encouraging response is that after the trials most are coming back with big orders. Alcoa started with five and came back with an order for 50.”
Depending on the model bought, the Sensear product sells for between $450 and $550, a price which Miller describes as “extremely profitable”, without divulging any financial details.
“I can say that there is no price resistance from the companies we’re dealing with,” he said. “That’s one of the most significant aspects about what we’re experiencing.”
The product, which was voted “the most likely to succeed” at a technology event hosted by Microsoft in June at its Silicon Valley campus in California, owes much to Sensear’s chief technology officer, Sven Nordholm, who is also professor in telecommunications at Curtin and research director at the signal processing laboratory at the WA Telecommunications Research Institute (a joint UWA and Curtin organisation).
Ownership of Sensear is currently with about 50 investors, including Miller and the rest of the management team. The biggest single shareholder with a 26% stake in the business is the listed technology investor, Biotech Capital.
A stock exchange listing is possible, but Miller says he is keen to “not go too early”, a comment on how he expects to build a sales (and profit) profile that will maximise the return to the foundation investors.
He says development of Sensear had, so far, chewed up around $4.5 million in capital, including a $1 million Commercial Ready grant from the Australian Government. The most recent fund raising was via an internal rights issue from existing shareholders.
Miller says sales of Sensear products started in April with 50 customers now on the company’s books.
“Our industrial customers, such as Alcoa and Boeing, have a huge need in protecting the hearing of workers, but in also allowing them to communicate on the job,” he says.
“Boeing started by using four or five Sensear devices on its 777 production line in Seattle. Kenworth did the same thing, starting with three units, now the quote is in for 100.
“The Alcoa experience reflects the issue confronted by a lot of companies. They told us that they’ve spent millions of dollars trying to engineer noise out of the workplace, but the incidence of noise-induced hearing loss continues to rise.
“One of the advantages of our system is that we can record the exposure of workers to noise. After a day’s use we can download the data for each individual wearer which shows his exposure.
“If you put a GPS (global positioning system) in it, the customer will then be able to create a noise map of the site.”
The only Sensear product currently on the market is in ear plug form. An ear muff version is due to be released in September at a safety conference in California.
Manufacturing, or assembling to be more accurate, is taking place in Perth with individual parts supplied by seven different supplies spread as far afield as Mexico. However, the critical step of loading software takes place in Perth as one of the steps to protect intellectual property.