ZPower's aims to make hearing aids more reliable with rechargeable batteries [Ventura County Star, Calif. :: ]
(Ventura County Star (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 22--A new rechargeable hearing aid battery developed by a Camarillo firm lets users who were replacing disposable batteries every week use one battery for the whole year.
While there are other rechargeable hearing aid batteries on the market, ZPower Inc. has been working on a silver-zinc battery that brings technology out of the aerospace and military uses of the past to the consumer market. The batteries give users peace of mind with a freshly powered battery each day so they don't risk battery failure in the middle of something important, said Ross Dueber, ZPower president and chief executive officer.
The new batteries recently hit the market through ZPower's partnership with Starkey Hearing Technologies, the result of several years of development and field testing.
Dueber said ZPower has been producing the batteries since December. In January, Starkey introduced a flash-drive-sized USB charger to power the rechargeable batteries, which can be used in its existing hearing aids, said Jerry Ruzicka, Starkey Hearing Technologies president.
Customers can remove their batteries, place them in the charger and plug them into a wall outlet or even a computer USB port to charge, Ruzicka said. The thought is that users will charge the batteries each night.
"It's handy, portable and easy to use," he said. "We wanted to make sure that people who have purchased hearing aids in the past have access to the technology, and this is the best way to do it."
Ruzicka said ZPower has been a good partner since Starkey began to explore the possibility of a rechargeable option. He said the available rechargeable nickle-metal hydride batteries have been historically unreliable and have had quality and performance issues. The silver-zinc batteries from ZPower take care of some of those fundamental problems, he said.
ZPower has worked to improve upon existing silver-zinc technology -- building a portfolio of more than 30 patents, with additional ones pending. The company reports silver-zinc microbatteries deliver 40 percent more energy than lithium-ion batteries and 200 to 300 percent more than nickel-metal hydride batteries.
"The technology has been around for a while, but what our company has looked to do is adapt more to consumer electronics applications," Dueber said.
Partnerships with other hearing aid manufacturers are expected to follow. Batteries may be designed to work and charge a little differently, based on the intricacies of each individual hearing aid's internal construction, Dueber said.
ZPower started work on silver-zinc batteries more than 15 years ago, with plans to bring those batteries to the mobile computing market. Then in 2008 the economy took a dive.
The consumer electronics market, built around lithium-ion batteries, would have required a lot of redesign to support silver-zinc batteries. That cost no longer made sense in the down economy.
"We shifted the focus of the company and looked at other applications that made sense for our technology," Dueber said. "We settled on hearing aids as the best opportunity for us."
ZPower got its manufacturing line up and running in Camarillo in 2010 and has been producing batteries for lab and field testing, Dueber said. ZPower will produce the batteries for the hearing aid manufacturers, who will distribute them.
Hearing aids with rechargeable batteries have been on the market for a few years now.
For some people, there are advantages to using a hearing aid they charge each night just like a cellphone on the nightstand, said Dr. Alison Burks, an audiologist with Second Chance Hearing in Westlake Village. For others, however, the inclination is to stick with disposable batteries.
"Certain patients like the rechargeable," Burks said. "Every night they put it in the charger and don't worry the next day if the battery's going to die."
Users get the benefit of not having to carry around extra batteries, she said. For those rechargeable options currently on the market, batteries tend to last about eight months to a year, she said.
However, other users are more likely to stick with disposable batteries.
Burks said patients who live in care facilities or nursing homes often have hearing aids with disposable batteries because it is simpler for a caregiver to replace the batteries once a week and know that they're good for the week. The concern is some of those users may not remember to charge their batteries each night, or may be worried they won't do it the right way, she said.
"There's a market for both," Burks said.
Ruzicka said the dual market is there in the short-term, but he argues rechargeable cells could capture a large portion of the market in the years to come.
At ZPower, the hope is to increase demand for rechargeable hearing aid batteries through creating a better battery. The company highlights advantages of its silver-zinc batteries, including high power density -- packing more power into a smaller footprint and giving hearing aid manufacturers more options to scale down size.
There's also the benefit of having a battery that can be almost completely recycled. Audiologists will collect the spent batteries and send them to ZPower, where they can be recycled and recovered materials can be used in new production, Dueber said.
Dueber said the company will likely look at expanding into other medical uses once its batteries are established in the hearing aid arena.
"Certainly anything that has to do with on-body power, be it for health information or medical applications of some type," he said. "We continue to see this growing need for microbatteries."
This story is part of an occasional series on how Ventura County technology companies are impacting people. If your company fits that profile and you would like to be part of the series send information about your company and a contact number to DeAnn Justesen at email@example.com.@vcstar.com.
Hearing aid facts
Some data on hearing aids, based on the 2009 MarkeTrak survey by the Better Hearing Institute:
1 in 4 people with hearing loss used hearing aids, up from 1 in 5 in the 1980s.
The average age of hearing aid owners is 71.1.
40 percent of people with moderate to severe hearing loss own hearing aids, compared with 9 percent with mild hearing loss.
About half of potential hearing aid buyers want hearing aids that are more reliable.
28 percent of those with moderate to severe hearing loss and 16.9 percent of those with mild hearing loss said rechargeable batteries would make them more likely to buy a hearing aid.
The most important factors to those considering buying a hearing aid were the overall cost and insurance coverage.
Source: Kochkin S., MarkeTrak VIII: The key influencing factors in hearing aid purchase intent., Hearing Review. 2012
Headquarters: The company was founded in Santa Barbara in 1996, began to move operations into Camarillo in 2005 and consolidated operations in Camarillo in 2007.
Employees: About 40; privately held company
On the Net: www.zpowerbattery.com
(c)2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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