Thanks largely to the leadership and vision of Jerry Ruzicka, the company’s CEO and president, Starkey Laboratories has become the largest hearing-aid manufacturer in the U.S. It employs 3,250 at 22 facilities in more than 20 countries.
What It Does: Designs and manufactures innovative hearing aids and related devices.
It’s also one of the global industry’s most technologically innovative designers of hearing products. And that’s due to some sound strategies that Ruzicka introduced when he took charge.
Ruzicka gained his deep knowledge of the hearing aid business almost from the bottom up. He joined Starkey as a repair technician in 1977, climbed steadily, and was named president by company founder Bill Austin in 1998. As a two-decade veteran, Ruzicka saw the need to bring the company up to date: “I knew that hearing aids were no longer going to be simple devices in the future, and that if we didn’t develop a high-tech environment, we would cease to exist.”
Ruzicka also needed to make other crucial adjustments. “The company simply did not have any financial discipline; there was no business plan in place, and because of a lawsuit, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy,” he recalls. “In order to impact the long-term goal of becoming a technology-based company, I had to teach business planning throughout the organization and put in financial controls.”
A few years after Ruzicka became president, Starkey opened its Hearing Research Center in Berkeley, California. “When I became president, we had 20 people working on new products; today we have over 400,” Ruzicka says. “Back in 1998, we had a couple of junior engineers. Today, we have 40 PhD-level scientists working on various aspects of research and product development.”
One of the biggest fruits of this innovative thinking was the April 2006 introduction of Starkey’s Destiny line, which uses nanotechnology to eradicate feedback—the whistling, squealing, and other noises that an aid’s microphone can generate. Thanks to the Destiny products, Starkey gained six market share points in one year.
“It was phenomenal growth, a rocket ride,” Ruzicka says. “Conquering feedback and introducing nano-based materials was the line in the sand where we had the first level of maturity in all our technical groups.”
In April, Starkey introduced its Series iQ line, whose Voice iQ technology reduces the extraneous sounds in noisy environments, such as crowded restaurants or windy parks, so that speech is easier to pick up. “Noise reduction is such a significant [issue] that we expect Voice iQ to provide the same kind of growth as Destiny did,” Ruzicka asserts.
Another recent technological breakthrough from Starkey is a feature called T2 on Demand, which allows a wearer to use his or her cell phone as a remote control. Hit a couple of keys on your phone’s keypad, and you can “tell” your hearing aid to turn the volume up or down or change memory settings. T2 on Demand also lets a hearing professional unlock and adjust the aid remotely.
In June, the company announced that it had developed the world’s first “invisible-in-the-canal” hearing aid. The OtoLens is placed in the second bend of the ear, where it can’t be seen.
More technological innovation is coming, including a wireless system in November that will allow the customer to receive a wireless signal from a TV, stereo, remote control, or other device. An accessory is connected with a wire to the television, then transmits the signal wirelessly to the hearing aid.
“I want [Starkey] to be the Apple of our industry,” Ruzicka says. “When you hear about an Apple product, you expect it to have a cool new feature, you expect it to be easy to use, and you expect it to work. That’s how I want to describe what we do: I want to be innovative, I want to be intuitive, and I want to deliver high performance.”