Doing good business while doing good: An interview with pioneer and hearX founder De Wet Swanepoel
hearX is more than a company. It’s a movement championing healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere. The remarkable business – and TIME 100 Company – is fighting a silent epidemic with cost-effective and user-friendly digital tech that scales rapidly. But beyond the tech and collaborations lies an unwavering people-first company culture that encourages fresh thinking, cherishes feedback, and puts the end-user at the core of every decision. Don’t miss this wonderfully insightful interview with Founder De Wet Swanepoel on how to build a global tech business without losing sight of the real-world challenges at the heart of its ambitious mission.
At HAVAÍC, our investment thesis is to support scalable tech solutions to real-world problems. When and how did the problem and the solution that would go on to become hearX take shape? Hearing loss affects over 1.5 billion persons globally. Over the past 20 years, my research has been driven by the total lack of access to services in regions like Africa where there's less than one audiologist per million people. When we started seeing the transformative power of mobile technologies in sectors like banking and agriculture a little over a decade ago, it struck me: why not hearing healthcare? At the time, I consulted the National Department of Health on strategies for school-entry hearing screening. The limitations were starkly evident. Screenings were costly, required specialists to operate, lacked quality control, and relied on outdated paper-based data management. That is when the vision for hearX crystallised. I imagined harnessing the potential of mobile tech with cloud-based integration to introduce a ground-breaking alternative. One that makes hearing care accessible using cost-effective and user-friendly digital technologies. One that harnesses the power of connected digital technologies to integrate automation, AI, rigorous quality control, and cloud-based surveillance, referral, and reporting. The future of hearing healthcare had to pivot, and we were uniquely poised to drive that change. We also love seeing the social and economic impact and the knock-on effect of our portfolio companies. How would you describe the impact hearX continues to have on people and the wider healthcare industry? What about the knock-on or ripple effect of your tech on other industries? Our journey has always been about addressing the invisible epidemic of hearing loss through innovation that matters to people on the ground. Our mission is not merely to address a health concern but to enable countless lives to experience the joy of connection which is the essence of communication. In regions like Africa, the need for accessible hearing care is crystal clear. That is why our digital solutions were purpose-built to revolutionise existing service-delivery models in ways that can scale rapidly. Our innovations have enabled new ways to detect, diagnose, and treat hearing loss outside of traditional settings. hearX takes hearing healthcare to the people. For instance, our hearWHO app in partnership with the World Health Organisation has enabled hearing screening for 300,000 people across 191 countries in only three years. And our over-the-counter Lexie and Go Hearing Aids are at the forefront of breaking down access barriers even in affluent nations like the United States. To us, hearX is more than a company. It represents a movement championing healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere. hearX or Lexie Hearing is in great company on TIME’s 100 list – what was your reaction when you heard the news? It was a whirlwind of emotions. A mix of elation, humility, and immense pride in our dedicated team who have relentlessly driven our mission forward. It's also a validation - not just of our product or service - but also the belief that guided our journey from the start: everyone, regardless of where they are or their economic circumstances, deserves the right to healthy hearing and the opportunities that come with it. Achieving this recognition wasn't the result of a single silver bullet, but rather a combination of factors. Firstly, our team's unwavering commitment to innovation and understanding the real-world challenges of those with hearing loss set the foundation. Originating in an academic environment, our solutions are trusted globally because of the emphasis on rigorous research published in leading peer-reviewed journals which support all of our solutions. Collaborations have also been pivotal. Partnering with organisations such as the World Health Organisation has further extended our reach and the credibility of our initiatives. Beyond the tech and collaborations, however, lies our company culture. A culture that encourages out-of-the-box thinking, cherishes feedback, and places the end-user at the core of every decision. What have been some of the biggest challenges along the way? Having a great idea is a good start but moving it to a product that can scale rapidly is a whole different ball game. And in healthcare it’s compounded by the regulatory hurdles. Ensuring compliance with medical standards across different regions, understanding diverse regulatory landscapes, and navigating the intricate requirements of medical device certifications were all complex and time-consuming processes. Keeping up with rapid advancements in technology and ensuring our solutions remained state-of-the-art required constant evolution. Additionally, as we scaled, ensuring consistent quality of service and maintaining our core ethos became paramount. Finally, it has also been a process to shift the paradigm from traditional audiological methods to our tech-forward approach. Beyond introducing our products, we had to educate potential users, healthcare professionals, NGOs, and even policymakers about the advantages and viability of our solutions. And the biggest lessons learned? Our core value is people first. The people on the hearX team have been absolutely integral to our success. Right from the start, we made sure to invest in the best people we could find and draw them into our collective mission for social impact. This core value also extends to our partnerships and, perhaps most importantly, our ultimate beneficiaries - people with hearing loss. The hearX Foundation does incredible work. Can you tell us more about your experience as an integral part of the foundation and its impact? Initially, we ran our social impact programmes in communities through the company. It was great to not only be directly involved with impact on the ground but also make sure the tech worked in some of the harshest conditions possible. It also kept the social mission central to our efforts and enabled rapid iterative improvements to the tech. As the company grew, we formally launched the foundation to run the operational impact. To ensure the company and foundation remain closely aligned, we share the same vision - healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere. The foundation’s mission is to develop, implement, and scale sustainable hearing services using digital technologies that anyone can use anywhere. In a way, the foundation helps hearX stay true to its roots as a social impact endeavour. Entrepreneurs are so vital for economic growth and job creation in Africa. What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs on our continent? Scaling transformative tech solutions has definitely helped to identify some key drivers. Africa's unique and clearly evident challenges are ripe with opportunities for entrepreneurs with vision, adaptability, and tenacity.
It's paramount to recognise and genuinely address real-world challenges. These challenges are the bedrock of scalable solutions.
Dive deep into the intricate nuances of your target market. In Africa, this often means understanding diverse cultures and socioeconomic dynamics.
Harness the transformative power of digital technologies, as we've seen in sectors across the continent.
Build and cherish robust partnerships. Our collaborations have been instrumental.
And perhaps most crucially, maintain an unwavering people-first ethos, whether it's your dedicated team, your partners, or the end-users you aim to serve.
hearX is a prime example of ‘doing good can be good business’. How do you stay the course to ensure you continue doing good and making the right decisions as the business grows? Navigating the intricate balance between social impact and business growth is a challenge for a growing business. It’s something we are continually grappling with. We’ve tried to stay anchored to our foundational vision and mission as a guiding beacon, and the hearX foundation has been critical for us in this regard. For us, it's always been about democratising hearing healthcare. As we scale, we ensure our innovations continually reflect and address real-world challenges, remembering that genuine solutions often spring from the grassroots. Regularly engaging with our end-users and understanding their evolving needs helps us stay aligned. Internally, fostering a company culture that celebrates innovation, values feedback, and prioritises social impact ensures our decisions echo our ethos. Ultimately, as the business landscape evolves, we realise the importance of keeping this compass steadfast. Having a people-first approach where every business decision is scrutinised for its potential to uphold our commitment to 'doing good' is critical. Where are the biggest business opportunities in healthcare and hearing healthcare at the moment? Hearing loss is finally becoming a recognised public health concern. With an estimated annual price tag of US$980 billion for unaddressed hearing loss, the WHO is proactively working with governments through the World Hearing Forum to prioritise strategies for hearing care. Increasingly, innovative technologies and service-delivery models are accepted as the only way to scale hearing care in ways that can make a difference globally. This is great news and gives all of us in this field the opportunity to really strive for a world where healthy hearing is possible for everyone, everywhere About De Wet Swanepoel De Wet Swanepoel is professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, University of Pretoria, a WHO collaborating Center for the Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss. He is also adjunct professor at the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, University of Colorado School of Medicine. His research is focussed on innovative solutions and service-delivery models for more equitable hearing care. He has published more than 260 peer-reviewed articles, books, and book chapters and is funded by the NIH, UK Academy of Medical Sciences, National Research Foundation, and industry. Dr Swanepoel is former president of the International Society of Audiology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Audiology. He is founder of a digital health company called the hearX group, a social enterprise with a vision of healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere.