Researcher Matthew Neal in UofL’s Acoustical Test Facility. 
Researcher Matthew Neal in UofL’s Acoustical Test Facility. 

University of Louisville researchers studying how virtual reality technologies can help those with hearing disabilities were selected for a prestigious innovation program through the National Science Foundation.

The NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Teams program provides training and $50,000 to develop new, technology-backed startups. The UofL team, led by School of Medicine research scientist Matthew Neal, completed an intensive, two-month boot camp learning about commercialization, engaging with industry and talking to more than 100 potential customers.

Neal and his collaborators — co-technical leads Pavel Zahorik and Shae Morgan, both in the audiology department — are developing a virtual reality-based technology to help patients test different models and program their hearing aids, without leaving the comfort of the clinical setting. 

With this tool, audiologists could use a VR headset or a wide screen display to demonstrate how specific hearing aid models and settings would perform in different, realistic environments, such as a school, noisy restaurant, grocery store or church. The idea, Neal said, is to help patients find the right fit.

“It’s kind of like test-driving a new car and seeing how it performs in real-world conditions,” Neal said. “We want to help people choose the hearing aid and get it programmed specifically for the specific environments where they have trouble, and with virtual reality technologies, you can do that without leaving your audiologist’s office.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in eight Americans over the age of 12 have some degree of hearing loss and about 28.8 million adults could benefit from using hearing aids.

Following the I-Corps national program, the researchers now are developing a working prototype and considering various funding routes to continue research efforts and pursue commercialization of the technology. Their product development efforts are supported by business mentor Tendai Charasika, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the UofL Office of Research and Innovation.

The team is also in a research partnership with both the Heuser Hearing Institute, a not-for-profit hearing healthcare organization serving Kentuckiana, and Sonova, a hearing aid manufacturer.

“We are proud that our decades-long partnership with the University of Louisville to further the field of audiology with cutting-edge hearing healthcare technology has led to this recognition,” said House CEO Brett Bachmann. “Congratulations to Matthew Neal, Pavel Zahorik and Shae Morgan.

Teams must be nominated for the national I-Corps Teams bootcamp, and must first complete UofL’s regional I-Corps site program and LaunchIt, UofL’s product innovation bootcamp. UofL and partners recently received $15 million from the National Science Foundation to launch a new regional NSF Mid-South Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub, one of only 10 across the U.S.

Neal’s team also received funding and coaching through UofL’s Pandemic-Related Product Acceleration & Responsive Entrepreneurship Program, or PRePARE, which partners UofL researchers with companies and members of the community to scale up innovative ideas addressing health, economic and societal issues caused by pandemics. The PRePARE program fostered the additional collaboration between UofL and Heuser Hearing Institute. 

“These programs support commercialization of the work being done by our researchers here at UofL,” said Jessica Sharon, UofL’s director of innovation programs. “We’re proud of Matthew and the team at the Heuser Hearing Institute, and their work to accelerate product development of this innovation that addresses unmet needs in the  market and could help many people.”