In a time where consumer adoption of smart earbuds is rising, one would think that it would be smooth sailing for a hearables startup. But with the recent demise of San Francisco’s Doppler Labs Inc, the startup is living proof that there is no guarantee of success in the wearable technology space.
Doppler Lab Failure to Translate Their Technology Successfully?
Doppler Lab’s wearable in-ear computer, HereOne Plus, came about due to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, in Jue 2015. It raised $635,189, more than double of their original $250,000 goal. Then in the summer of 2016 HereOne Plus raised another $24 million in a Series B round.
The sky was the limit for HereOne Plus, as they gained column inches around the world from Rolling Stone to Wired. The ambitious co-founder and CEO Noah Kraft was able to translate his technology impressively, making investors believe they were ready to enhance the way people experience sound. His confidence led up to a total of $50 million of funding.
The startup launched three products; the DUBS Acoustic Filters, Here Active Listening, and Here One Wireless Smart Earbuds. Then many IP and 38 filed patents later; the company announced they had to close their doors on 1st November 2017. Media outlets from Wareable to Wired gave interesting perspectives on what happened to the hearables startup, but one thing they did not address was the randomness factor called timing. Mentioned in FastCompany as the ‘Most innovative company,’ tech editor Harry McCracken, who spoke to Doppler’s CEO, stated: “The capital-intensiveness of doing hardware makes it so incremental steps are tough,” he continued. “It’s not like we can write a few lines of code and show progress.”
From a hearing industry perspective, Doppler has been a strong and constant advocate for OTC hearing aid legislation thanks to KR Liu the driving force behind the OTC legislation for Doppler. The VP, Advocacy & Accessibility at Doppler was a fixture at virtually all the PCAST, NASEM, FDA, and FTC workshops, as well as the recent ADA convention. Some say a noble undertaking; others think it to be a necessity but either way, Doppler saw great promise for OTC hearing devices as a way of opening up a new world of hearing help.
In the context of Doppler Labs’ shut down, Abram Bailey, president from the independent consumer review platform for hearing aids, Hearing Tracker shared with FashNerd.com: “Doppler Labs and the CTA (Consumer Technology Association) played a significant role in promoting hearing aid accessibility in the debates leading up to the passage of The Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act. The current regulations on personal amplifiers prohibit marketing amplifiers as solutions for hearing loss, and it will be a couple of years before the OTC category is officially created and regulated. This regulatory delay would have seen Here Two entering the market during the interim, while OTC regulations were still murky. Abram continues “Part of me wonders whether this had any impact on Doppler’s ability to fundraise. Ironically, Doppler Labs won’t be able to play in the world it helped to create.”
Hardware is Hard, Hearables the Hardest
In the meantime, as the big boys like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and of course Apple are investing billions into developing their devices, the Silicon Valley cliché “Hardware is hard” is starting to make sense. This cliche is even more valid when you take into consideration that Doppler Labs started out four years ago, at a time when the components that were manufactured were not manufactured to be in our Hearables. A great example of this is one of Doppler’s competitors Bragi. Their dash hearable device has 150 different components in that one tiny earbud. Putting all this technology in an ear-fitting computer is only half the challenge.
The Here One earbuds, announced the 28th of June in 2016, bragged noise cancellation with a premium sound that added augmented reality to your hearing through speech enhancement. At first sight, a refreshing offering but the battery life was awful, a problem that is very familiar with hearables in general. The reality was that Doppler Labs had only sold just 25,000 of their $299.- Costing devices, with about 15,000 still laying on the shelve. Which means, that after peeling everything off, things like a visionary pitch and an impressive marketing machine the product was just not compelling enough for the early adopters.
In all fairness, Doppler Lab’s Here Active listening device was accepted with mixed reviews. Specific settings were perceived as features that were added by engineers merely because they could, not because of a hypothesis that was tested to find out if there was a real need for them. Of course, inventing a need, throwing it at the wall and hoping it sticks is a very typical occurrence in the wearable tech space.
“Inventing a need, throwing it at the wall and hoping it sticks is a very typical occurrence in the wearable tech space.”
It must be incredibly frustrating when you feel you are doing everything right but the numbers tell you otherwise. In my opinion, sometimes we tend to forget that there are specific factors in place that we do not have any influence on. All you can do is focus on what you can influence and make sure that all your boxes are checked. Even then, it is always good to keep in mind that the most significant aspect, the randomness factor, could still decide if you go high or go bust. Simply put, real success is mainly about the right timing.