Unable to hear properly after severe illness at a very young age, Geoffrey Ball, 53, has been looking for, and working on a solution improve his hearing for the last 30 years. In the process, he turned himself into an inventor and entrepreneur for implantable hearing devices.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, California, Ball had developed sensorineural hearing loss when he was a child. For him, conventional hearing aid was not a permanent solution for impaired hearing. At the age of 15, he asked his ENT specialist for implantable devices to help with his hearing.  However, he was told the technology on middle ear implants was still under development and was not ready to be offered as a solution.
In his recent interview with BBC World Service , Ball shared that he was once thinking of going to medical school to pursue his dream to becoming an ear surgeon to help deaf children and people to hear again. However, he never made it to medical school but instead, he plunged into developing medical devices and hearing implants for the rest of his life.
Determined to find a cure for himself and also to develop solutions to help other children with hearing-impairment, he embarked onto the journey that brought him to the University of Oregon for his Bachelor of Science (Biomechanics) degree, and the University of Southern California for a Master’s degree specialising in Systems Management. He worked in the research lab at Stanford University with other researchers to develop his ‘perfect’ implant, but soon realised that there are actually different types of hearing loss, and the types of indications have to be varied based on different situations. Over eight years, he worked many late nights and weekends, and tried out hundreds of hearing devices but none had been able to deliver the results he was looking for. After series of trial-and-error, Ball and his team developed a partially implantable hearing device eventually. They later founded Symphonix Devices Inc. in 1993 to further develop the implant technology called VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE. [3,4]
The VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE is the first active middle ear implant hearing aid for individuals with mild-to-severe sensorineural hearing loss, and mixed and conductive hearing loss. This Middle Ear Implant System consists of an externally worn audio processor and an implant, which is surgically fixed to the temporal bone to convert sound signals into mechanical vibrations that transmit to the skull. The bone then conducts the vibrations to the inner ear, which in turn, transmits the information to brain to perceive. The implant relays signal down the conductor link to the Floating Mass Transducer (FMT).
FMT can be connected to the middle ear bones in order to create sound vibrations which are loud enough to be heard. The thinking behind the development of FMT is departed from the conventional wisdom of audio amplification of sounds to improve the signals, instead it converts the electrical signals into mechanical vibrations that stimulate the structures in middle ear to sense the signals. The vibrations go through the inner ear and will then be perceived by the brain as sound. Use of the FMT is independent of skull growth, as the FMT needs only be affixed to the structure it stimulates. [4,5] The VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE is an exceptional alternative to conventional hearing aids or bone conduction devices, and the surgical procedure is relatively simple. The VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE as a treatment for hearing problems has changed the stereotype thinking about hearing aids development, and has enlightened our understanding of hearing disability.
In 2003, VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE was acquired by MED-EL, a leading manufacturer of innovative medical devices for the treatment of various types and degrees of hearing loss, headquartered in Innsbruck, Austria. Since then, Geoffrey Ball became the Chief Technology Officer of VIBRANT MED-EL. He developed the next generation of VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE implant and re-launched the product to the market in 2014.
Having been implanted with two units of his VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE, Geoffrey Ball described that he is happy to be able to hear sounds clearly and naturally. Back then, “the hearing aids are made all sounds louder, but they made nothing clearer,” said Ball in an interview . Ball deemed that the innovative hearing devices are essential in enabling hearing-impaired children learn how to communicate effectively, develop literacy skills and live a better quality of life to adulthood.
Ball’s breakthrough technology radically changes lives of many with hearing-impairment. His book – No More Laughing at the Deaf Boy was published in 2011 to tell his stories and life journey, and he won the Life Award in 2013.
He is definitely the winner of his life, setting a good example by showing that no matter what their disabilities are, achievements and success are waiting for those who never give up.
How much do you know about hearing loss?
There are four types of hearing loss: neural hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, conductive hearing loss, and mixed hearing loss.
Neural hearing loss happens when the auditory nerve is damaged or absent. Sound information is thus, not able to reach the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss refers to missing or damaged sensory cells in cochlea (central structure in inner ear). People with mild to severe sensorineural hearing loss can be treated with middle ear implants, or hearing aids, and a cochlear implant for more severe cases.
Conductive hearing loss is the event in which sounds are not able to be conducted properly due to the problems occurring in the outer or middle ear. Individuals with this problem are usually treated with hearing aids, a middle ear implant, or a bone conduction implant.
A mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss, resulting from the problems in both the outer or middle ear, and the inner ear. The affected person can choose to receive medication, hearing aids, or undergoes surgery for a middle ear implant or a bone conduction implant. For instance, Round Window Vibroplasty placed the FMT on the round window (an opening between middle and inner ear) for the treatment of conductive and mixed hearing loss. [3,5]
- Geoffrey Ball. Inventor of the VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE. Available at: www.medel.com/support-user-stories-geoff-ball/.
- BBC World Service. World Business Report. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04synvj.
- Greoffrey R. Ball. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_R._Ball.
- MED-EL Blog. Geoff Ball: The Inventor of the VIBRANT SOUNDBRIDGE. Available at: https://blog.medel.com/geoff-ball-the-inventor-of-the-vibrant-soundbridge/
- How the Vibrant Soundbridge works with Amadé Audio Processor. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahrKaHrrmcw.