When he was fourteen years old, Mukund Venkatakrishnan visited his family in India, where he helped his grandfather get tested and fitted for a hearing aid. Realizing how costly and difficult this process was, Venkatakrishnan became dedicated to finding an alternative. Since audiologists are specialists, it’s difficult (and expensive) to get an appointment with them, and the hearing aid is even more expensive; Venkatakrishnan’s family spent about $500 on doctor’s appointments and about $1900 on the hearing aid, a luxury that people in developing countries can’t afford (in India, for example, the median household income is $616 a year).
Two years since that summer trip to India, Venkatakrishnan has developed a unique device that tests a person’s hearing with a series of beeps and then programs itself to become a hearing aid. It only costs about $50 to make and can be used with even the cheapest set of headphones, a far less amount than the $2000+ that Venkatakrishnan’s family spent. Unlike most hearing aids, this isn’t costly to replace; you just buy another set of ear buds. It’s about two inches and looks like a computer processor in its current form. However, Venkatakrishnan envisions it being small enough to fit into somebody’s pocket, and is planning to bring it down to about one inch and then encase the operating system. He’s even created a way for users to calibrate the device themselves: each device has an audio file of the sound of hands rubbing together, and to calibrate it you just need to rub your hands together and match the volume of the audio file.
Since his summer visit, Venkatakrishnan has been teaching himself to code, building the audio program and developing the device. He made it on his own, but with guidance from engineers and audiologists. Working with doctors, he conducted tests on patients with hearing loss to ensure the device was accurate. Venkatakrishnan has admitted there’s a lot of stigma associated with a hearing aid, but hopes that since this device uses headphones and isn’t in-ear, it can reduce some of this stigma.
While Venkatakrishnan is eager to make a difference, and this is clearly a great business opportunity for the teenager, he said he’s not interested in making money off of the invention; he’s adamant that the audio software remain open source so other developers can modify and tweak it, and is hoping that an organization that already has connections in developing countries will want to mass-produce and distribute the device.
Inventing game-changing hearing aids isn’t the only one of Venkatakrishnan’s talents: he regularly runs half marathons and has been playing violin for 12 years. A high school junior, he’s looking at Stanford, Georgia Tech, Berkeley and MIT for college. While he may want to do something with coding or engineering, he’s also interested in business.
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