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Hearing aid assembly
Assembly of the microelectronics (left), Fully automated fabrication of the plastic components (right)
Quality control of the electronics

Lukas Braunschweiler Sonova
Text: Sandra Willmeroth/Images: Markus Bertschi/Video: Severin Jakob

On the joy of hearing

Lukas Braunschweiler, CEO of the Sonova Group, tells us why hearing well is ­important on so many levels in our daily lives, how to develop a hearing aid the size of a grain of rice, and why his company is keeping its feet firmly on the ground.

“Hearing is the sense that requires by far the most brain activity.”

There are more than 70 million children and adults around the world who cannot hear. What chances of hearing normally one day does a child born deaf have?

At present, a deaf child can be given an ear implant from its first birthday onwards, and a second can be fitted after two or three years. These children will have no hearing restrictions in later life and will be fully socially integrated. We know of children with two implants who sing in a choir; this would have been inconceivable 20 or 30 years ago.

But that would very much depend on the healthcare system provided by the country in which you were born, wouldn’t it?

The huge disparity between developed countries and the emerging economies is something I find particularly troubling. The Swiss healthcare system, for example, is highly efficient and covers the entire population – although disproportionate annual increases in healthcare costs mean it will soon reach its limits. By contrast, the five to six billion people in the emerging economies – a far larger portion of the global population – are chronically under-served, and not just with medical services. I consider this yawning divide an issue of critical importance.

“We think it is only a matter of time before hearing aids are entirely socially acceptable.”

Is this why Sonova founded the “Hear the World Foundation”?

That’s certainly one of the reasons. The foundation’s goal is to support projects in countries where there is a shortage of medical equipment or where the majority of the population cannot afford devices. Since we founded “Hear the World”, we have been involved in more than 80 projects and are operating in countries where we can achieve sustainable change, for example by supplying children with hearing aids. A child with hearing loss that is able to hear normally, integrate socially and attend school will also have much better chances in later life. In the development of a human being, proper hearing is much more than the mere ability to perceive sound.

How do you mean?

Poor hearing often triggers disease or problems in associated areas of the body. There are at least seven or eight illnesses related to hearing loss – it has been proven that people who suffer from tinnitus invariably have some kind of underlying hearing problem, for example, and we know that ADHD can also be linked to hearing issues. Equally, there are studies showing a correlation between hearing loss and dementia. This isn’t particularly surprising, as age-related deterioration in hearing function causes changes in the brain.

How?

Hearing loss is a slow, creeping development. People who are losing their hearing will often kid themselves, ignoring or glossing over the fact that they can’t hear as well as before. This forces the brain to adapt to deteriorations in hearing ability, which in turn diminishes its processing capacity and makes it sluggish. The ear is a highly complex organ and hearing is the sense that requires by far the most brain activity.

Many people are reluctant to get a hearing aid – what have you done to try to change this?

This is a psychological consideration. Many people still think of a hearing aid as a kind of prosthesis. In Italy and France, they even call it an “audioprothese”, which carries a definite stigma, and we are working hard to break down these negative associations. This situation certainly explains why people with hearing loss wait for an average of seven years before seeking the help of an audiologist. Unfortunately, the link between the brain and the ear may already have suffered substantial damage during this period.

Isn’t it more for aesthetic reasons that people are disinclined to use hearing aids?

Design plays a huge role, of course – but today’s hearing aids are a very different kettle of fish from the clunky, flesh-coloured devices you used to have to cram behind your ear. We are now capable of manufacturing aids that are so small you can’t really see them, as they are placed directly in the ear canal. This is why we think it is only a matter of time before hearing aids are entirely socially acceptable – perhaps not necessarily the ones you have to wear day and night, but certainly the smaller, easy-to-use ones that serve to enhance a specific acoustic experience, such as attending a symphony concert or taking part in a large group conversation around a table.

Which of your company’s innovations do you find most exciting?

We have set a number of standards – in binaural hearing, for instance, which enables the left and right hearing aids to communi-cate in real time and thus imitate the ears’ stereo ability. Another example is “Lyric”, our “contact lens” for the ear: this is a hearing aid that is only the size of a grain of rice, and we were the first to bring it to market. Our latest achievement is a rechargeable hearing aid from Phonak – it uses lithium-ion batteries and a completely novel radio technology.

Where do you get your ideas for such innovations?

Interestingly, it is frequently not our company that comes up with the idea, but we are often the ones who realise its implications, and so we end up developing the actual product, bringing it to market and turning it into the industry standard. Rechargeable hearing aids existed before we brought ours onto the market, for example, but they weren’t as technically sophisticated and therefore didn’t enjoy the same commercial success as our products. We were the first to make that happen.

Through proverbial Swiss perseverance and precision? Or what is your guiding principle?

Maybe! It’s no coincidence that we are not that far from the Jura region, and our business has a lot in common with the watch industry. Besides precision, however, I value two things in particular: modesty and determination – and each has to be applied with dedi-cation and care. I strive to live by this principle in both my private and my professional life. It matters to me that we keep our feet on the ground as a company. We owe this to the market we serve, as well; ultimately, our business provides support for human beings whose lives are anything but easy.

How is this reflected in Sonova’s vision?

We imagine a world in which there is a solution for every kind of hearing loss, and in which everyone can experience the joy of hearing. Whether they’re children or a little older, people who regain their hearing have a completely different sense of what is possible and enjoy access to new social opportunities. They feel they can participate fully in life again – and that is key.

Lukas Braunschweiler

Lukas Braunschweiler, a Swiss citizen born in 1956, has been managing the Sonova Group’s operations since November 2011. After heading up the Dionex Corporation from 2002 to 2009 and acting in a number of group executive positions for Mettler Toledo’s Swiss and US operations, he served as CEO of the Swiss technology group Ruag before joining Sonova. Lukas Braunschweiler holds an MSc in Analytical Chemistry and a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the ETH Zurich. He is married and has two sons.

Sonova

Sonova is the leading provider of innovative hearing care solutions. The group operates through its core business brands Phonak, Unitron, Hansaton, Advanced Bionics and AudioNova. Sonova offers its customers one of the most comprehensive product portfolios in the industry – from hearing instruments to cochlear implants to wireless communication solutions. Founded in 1947, the group is currently present in over 100 countries across the globe and has a workforce of over 14,000 dedicated employees. Sonova generated sales of CHF 2.4 billion in the financial year 2016/2017 and a net profit of CHF 356 million. Across all businesses, and by supporting the “Hear the World Foundation”, Sonova pursues its vision of a world where everyone enjoys the delight of hearing and therefore lives a life without limitations.

www.sonova.com