Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

Have you ever attempted to picture what life would be like if you were unable to hear what was going on around you, or if you were unable to use words to convey your feelings or thoughts? For most individuals, hearing and speaking are natural abilities that we take for granted from the moment of our birth. But for a tiny percentage, these seemingly straightforward abilities represent a lifetime ambition that affects almost every aspect of their existence.

Congenital hearing loss is one of the most common chronic health conditions among children, affecting an average of 1-3 in every 1,000 newborns. Globally, around 466 million people — or 5% of the world’s population — have some degree of disabling hearing loss1, causing significant impact on their quality of life and social cognition. In addition to hearing loss, Specific Language Disorders (SLD) occur in nearly 20% of children aged 3-102. The close association between spoken and written language also makes children with SLD more likely to face difficulties in reading and writing, and there is often close overlap with other conditions such as autism, ADHD, and intellectual disabilities.

Stephen Hawking once said that “disability need not be an obstacle to success,” but with approximately 1.3 billion people around the world living with some form of disability, 80% of whom are located in developing countries, a truly inclusive society is needed if we are to provide those with disabilities both the platform and opportunities to achieve this success.

This shared belief in working across all sectors of society to create an inclusive world was once again the central theme of this year’s OPPO Inspiration Challenge, which took place from May to October. Built around OPPO’s philosophy of “Virtuous Innovation,” the Inspiration Challenge called on entrepreneurs and technology professionals worldwide to submit innovative proposals aimed at addressing key social issues, particularly in the areas of digital health and accessible technology. Through the program, OPPO and its partners discovered a world of unsung innovators who are using their technical knowledge and unique insights to make the world more inclusive and accessible through the power of technology.

Impulse — Giving people with hearing impairments the option to turn off “silent mode”

Today, cochlear implants remain the most common solution to treating congenital hearing loss. However, the treatment is not suitable for everyone, and it also comes with certain risks and financial barriers. Firstly, cochlear implants are typically not recommended to patients over the age of 8, and even when operations are successful, there are various post-operative factors that will continue to impact patients throughout their life. All this comes before considering the average US$25-30,000 cost for a single cochlear implant that must be borne by the family or the healthcare system. As a result, the majority of people with congenital hearing loss go their entire lives without ever hearing a sound.

Raman and Lakshmanan are two brothers from India who are hoping to change this by helping to switch on the sound for people with congenital hearing loss through their company Backyard Creators Private Limited. The brothers first became aware of the challenges faced by people with hearing impairments thanks to a young girl with congenital hearing loss in their neighborhood. After realizing both the significance and urgency of addressing this issue, Raman and Lakshmanan set out to develop Impulse — a low cost externally wearable non-surgical hearing aid. With many people in India unable to afford the high cost of cochlear implant surgery, Impulse has been designed with a focus on affordability so that as many people as possible might find the opportunity to regain their hearing. So far, Impulse has already been rolled out publicly on a small scale, where it has helped 50 children and adults with congenital hearing loss to finally hear the world around them.

“Accessibility to surgical solutions for congenital hearing loss is still extremely low in India, causing many people to end up living a life of silence. Our vision is to help build an India where no child becomes a deaf adult because of limited access to treatment,” said Raman.

Raman and Lakshmanan’s ultimate goal are to make sure that all hearing-impaired children in India can receive timely and effective treatment so that they can enjoy a normal childhood and never have to worry about hearing-related issues as adults. As part of this mission, the two brothers hope to enter into a long-term partnership with the Indian government to scale up the production of Impulse. In the meantime, they are working on bringing this innovation into India’s National Health Mission, where it will be able to benefit from healthcare subsidies designated for those with congenital hearing loss. As for their motivation for participating in this year’s Inspiration Challenge, the biggest draw for them was the chance to seek technical assistance alongside financial support and potential collaboration opportunities. They also hope that, through their participation in the program and future events, more people can learn about Impulse and ultimately more people can benefit from it.

EZSpeech — Making everyday communication easier for people with language disorders

Language disorders affect over 100 million people worldwide, however, there is severe shortage of qualified therapists today. Despite the fact that effective treatment requires personalized daily training, typical language therapists are often responsible for an average of 400-800 patients, meaning that not only are therapist waiting lists excessively long (typically 3-6 months in developing countries), but the treatment sessions are also limited to twice-weekly sessions of just 30 minutes each. Moreover, the high cost of therapy, which runs at around US$55-110 per session, put it even further out of reach for many families2.

Firouza Eshonova is a mother from Uzbekistan whose son has been receiving therapy at a speech center for a severe language disorder for a number of years. From her personal experience, Eshonova believes that a remote and affordable form of therapy would bring much-needed relief to both the time and financial pressures faced by carers and those with severe language disorders. This belief has led her to co-found Mila4AI Inc., which focuses on developing the AI-based virtual training platform — EZSpeech. Using visual and audio recognition technology, EZSpeech helps those with language disorders improve their speech without needing a therapist present. It provides users with instant visual, text, and verbal feedback to assist them in self-correction and training, and also offers real-time reports to monitor the effectiveness of the therapy. Starting from common everyday expressions like “I love you,” EZSpeech helps children with language disorders communicate meaningfully with people around them step by step.

As a readily available digital platform, EZSpeech is highly accessible and particularly beneficial for those in rural or underserved areas who may have limited access to in-person speech therapy services. By pitching EZSpeech at this year’s Inspiration Challenge, Eshonova and her team hope to build awareness for the platform and its effectiveness in improving language disorders. They also hope to draw on the expertise of OPPO and its partners to overcome the high barriers to entry in the market while further exploring funding opportunities and partnerships so that they can concentrate their attention on product development and expanding the current web-only service to also include mobile apps. By covering multiple systems like web, Android, and iOS, the team’s aim is to enable people with language disorders to easily practice their speech at any time and in any place with EZSpeech.

“The OPPO Inspiration Challenge gives us the opportunity to increase visibility for our startup, demonstrate our innovation, and attract potential partners and investors who are particularly interested in startups addressing social development,” said Eshonova.

Impulse and EZSpeech were just two of the 687 innovative proposals received from teams based in 66 different countries and regions for the 2023 OPPO Inspiration Challenge. Like Impulse and EZSpeech, other entrants also presented their solutions aimed at solving overlooked social issues in the two competition categories of “Inspiration for People” and “Inspiration for the Planet,” giving voices to those who previously had none. Through the Inspiration Challenge, these startups hope to bring their ideas to a larger audience so that more people can ultimately benefit from the power of technology.

With its brand mission of “Technology for Mankind, Kindness for the World,” OPPO will continue to explore how technology can be used to provide effective solutions to global social issues. At the same time, OPPO looks forward to collaborating with more innovative and high-potential start-ups around the world to create a better future for all.

 

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