Problem Solving Startup Audiotoniq
by Chad Swiatecki
Russ Apfel’s curiosity just wouldn’t let him take a break, even after retiring in 2008 from a career as a pioneer in the semiconductor industry. Following a brief breather from the working world, the 62-year-old started looking for a way to use the engineering talents and business sense he’d honed at Advanced Micro Devices and Silicon Labs toward a more personal cause.
“I was into hearing-aid chips and I knew they used lots of technology I’d been using and was familiar with, but I was surprised at how expensive they are,” Apfel said, explaining that most hearing aids are sold for 10 times what they cost to produce. “That’s when I stumbled on to a problem where people needed something I had expertise in, and I wanted to apply it and see what we could come up with.”
What Apfel came up with is Audiotoniq, the Austin-based company and his fifth startup. He has introduced a line of hearing aids that are more powerful, let users adjust the devices using a smartphone app and cost less than half what traditional hearing aids sell for. It’s a leap forward in the field, made possible by Apfel’s expertise in micro-technology, and his experience streamlining and overhauling product lines for worldwide companies to make them profit leaders in short order.
A New York native who landed in Austin with AMD in 1985, Apfel said the city’s independent spirit motivated him to go solo and start his own consulting firm in 1987. In the years since, Apfel has seen Austin become a world-renowned business incubator, crediting experts at the University of Texas and the attractiveness of the city to talented young professionals as huge advantages for him and other entrepreneurs.
With 14 full-time employees on staff and a roster of Austin-based independent contractors, Audiotoniq plans to introduce its offerings through a mobile trailer that can administer hearing tests at local pharmacies, doctors’ offices and nursing homes. By demonstrating how easily and quickly users can improve their hearing in noisy environments, Apfel hopes to break into a market of roughly 36 million Americans who experience some type of hearing loss.
Seeing the improvement in quality of life for users has been a new and rewarding experience for Apfel, since he’s typically worked to design products that don’t have such an intense impact on customers.
“This was more personal because you see an individual smile when they can hear better for the first time,” he said. “I’d like to see us develop products for places all over the world where there’s no access to help for hearing loss.”
If Audiotoniq follows the same successful trajectory as Apfel’s other business projects through the years, he doesn’t rule out shifting focus and looking for startup No. 6.
“I’m going to stay with this to make it successful, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing something because if you’re not learning and growing,” he says, “then you’re going in the opposite direction. This was about the fun and the challenge of the problem.”