Hearing loss affects more than 48 million U.S. citizens, but one tech developer in White Bear Lake is on the front lines creating innovative solutions.
Envoy Medical started out as St. Croix Medical in the mid-1990s, but it moved into the White Bear Lake area in the early 2000s. Brent Lucas, a resident of North Oaks, is the CEO of the company.
“You don’t hear about medical device companies on the east side of the city; that’s one of the things we love about White Bear Lake,” Lucas said.
In 2010, the company released the Esteem middle ear implant, which was recently the subject of a prominent study in the Journal of Laryngology & Otology. The study was authored by Dr. William McFeely of North Alabama ENT Associates, who followed up with 116 patients who received an Esteem implant between 2011 and 2016. The study showed statistically significant improvements in post-operative hearing and reinforced the safety and efficacy of this surgical hearing loss option.
In technical terms, Esteem is an osseointegrated active middle ear implant (AMEI). This type of device can help people with sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when there is damage to the inner ear.
While traditional hearing aids use microphones worn on the ear to amplify sounds, the AMEI uses the natural anatomy of the inner ear to capture sound and convert it into electric signals.
“If you saw a person implanted with Esteem, you would not be able to tell they have it,” Lucas said.
For those with hearing loss, hearing aids are not always the best option, Lucas explained. Anyone who has used earbuds or Bluetooth speakers knows how environmental sounds like wind blowing can affect hearing quality, Lucas said, but people using hearing aids have experienced these problems for decades. Hearing aids also require regular maintenance such as cleaning and battery changes, which can sometimes be difficult for people who struggle with dexterity or eyesight.
“With Esteem, you don’t have to,” Lucas said. “It’s like a pacemaker or knee replacement. They don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s like a bionic ear.”
Traditional hearing aids are usually taken out at night, but the Esteem implant stays active. Users don’t have to worry about missing noises in the middle of the night like a crying baby or a fire alarm.
Data on the effectiveness of AMEI technology is rare, making the recent study an important step in offering alternative options for hearing loss. Part of the struggle in gaining data is that implants like these are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, which classifies Esteem as a hearing aid. As a result, some people who would benefit from hearing aid alternatives don’t have affordable access to products such as Esteem. Lucas hopes to see that change in the near future.
“We hope it helps more people understand that hearing aids and cochlear implants are not the only two options for people with sensorineural hearing loss,” he said. “We support people with hearing loss and other advocates who continue to lobby Congress for better access to treatments that improve hearing health.”
Medical technology is a growing field in the Twin Cities, and Lucas said he is excited the White Bear Lake community can be at the forefront. Medtronic, headquartered in Fridley, is already a household name, but Lucas sees even more growth on the horizon.
“Minnesota is becoming a hot spot for medical technology,” he said. “There’s are a lot more startups in the area.”
The team of developers at Envoy Medical is currently working on a prototype cochlear implant that will start clinical trials later this year.
“That product should disrupt the cochlear implant industry and really offer White Bear Lake and Minnesota a great economic engine,” Lucas said. “The cochlear implant industry is quite large, with a billion dollars in sales revenue globally, and if we can bring even a fraction of that to White Bear Lake, that would be great.”
It’s a big industry, but Lucas said the team at Envoy Medical is dedicated to taking the time to make a product that truly works for its users.
“Medical devices take a long time to develop; it’s not like we’re making an app for a phone,” Lucas said. “We have a great group of engineers that really focuses on the idea that this is going to stay with somebody for the rest of our lives. We do our best to make sure the product’s perfect.”