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INNOVATION: Customers Turn Up TV Ears’ Sales Volume

TV EARS INC.

Founder and CEO: George Dennis.

Revenue: Would not disclose, but, according to Inc. 5000 list, $16.1 million in 2009; $15 million in 2008.

No. of local employees: 35.

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Investors: Self-funded.

Headquarters: Spring Valley.

Year founded: 1998.

What makes the company innovative: Top-selling brand for wireless TV listening devices; also has products to help people hear better on the telephone or at the dinner table.

When Dennis took his mother to get fitted for a hearing aid, he was blown away by the price the hearing professional, or audiologist, quoted: $7,000 for a set of two.

“For a little piece of plastic. It was a jaw dropper,” Dennis said.

His hard-of-hearing father had a specific request: make an aid specifically for the TV.

Dennis, 50, is not an audiologist, but he dived into the product side, trying to make the hearing aid more accessible and affordable.

The work he did in the basement of his Park City, Utah, home has resulted in his business becoming one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

TV Ears Inc. manufactures wireless headsets that create an acoustically sealed chamber to reduce room noise, making TV dialogue clear and understandable. Its product line also includes an amplified telephone and digital hearing aids.

Filling a Void

“It’s technology that’s good enough and very practical,” said Kevin Carroll, executive director of TechAmerica San Diego, a trade association for the high-tech industry. “You see higher-end solutions that are more expensive, but for the majority of Americans with hearing problems, this fits a niche need.”

Dennis is capitalizing on one of the most commonly unaddressed health conditions in America today. Hearing loss affects more than 34 million Americans, most below retirement age, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Hearing Industries Association, the national trade association of manufacturers of hearing aids, assistive listening devices, component parts and power sources.

Although the number of people going deaf is rising dramatically, hearing aid sales increased less than 1 percent in 2010 compared to 2009 — excluding what the federal government spends on hearing aids for war veterans — the association says.

That’s because many seniors can’t easily drop thousands of dollars for hearing aids. Depending on the technology used, hearing aids can cost consumers $2,500 to $7,500 for a set.

“It’s not covered by insurance or Medicare. It’s a check. It’s cash,” Dennis said.

Taking on the Competition

His TV Ears packaged concept is simple. For about $2,000, the customer gets an amplified telephone, a TV listening device and two digital hearing aids.

Dennis’ company competes with top hearing aid manufacturers that charge much higher prices than TV Ears, he said. Those competitors include Widex International, Oticon Inc., Starkey Laboratories Inc. and Siemens AG.

“Our product is just as good. We’d like to invite their products into our kit,” Dennis said. “We don’t want to fight with anybody.”

Under TV Ears’ new Certified Hearing Center program, the company refers interested customers to a network of hearing professionals in their neighborhood.

Currently, 10 beta Certified Hearing Center sites are up and running and the goal is to have 100 nationwide by the end of 2011. Eventually, Dennis hopes to have 500 centers across the U.S.

Each year, TV Ears acquires 300,000 new customers. It ranked 2,030th on last year’s Inc. 5000 list, reporting 131 percent revenue growth in the three previous years — with 2009 sales of $16.1 million. TV Ears has been on the Inc. 5000 list for three consecutive years.

“People are surprised it’s headquartered here in San Diego,” said Carroll, explaining that such products typically flow out of tech-heavy areas like Silicon Valley. “TV Ears is one of the few products created here that you can go out to Costco and buy on the shelves.”

Tierney Plumb is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.

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