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Africa healthcare start-ups focus on sight and sound

Two of the companies in this year’s FT/Statista ranking, South Africa’s HearX Group (ranked 10) and Lapaire of the Ivory Coast (14), address the most fundamental needs: hearing and sight.

Several companies in the ranking are broadly defined as health related, an area that has received much attention since the Covid pandemic exposed Africa’s dependence on outside suppliers, particularly of vaccines. The founders of HearX and Lapaire concluded that there were even more basic unaddressed needs. HearX’s chief executive Nic Klopper, one of four original founders, said the initial impetus came after discovering how many people were excluded from affordable hearing tests and hearing aid equipment. “The idea was to democratise access,” he says. The original insight for Jérôme Lapaire, a Swiss lawyer living in Nairobi, and founder of the eponymous company, came after noticing that only people in fancy restaurants or at the airport seemed to be wearing glasses. Why, he wondered, did he never see supermarket cashiers, street hawkers or Uber drivers with spectacles? Not, surely, because their eyesight was better, but rather because they could not afford the devices to correct their vision.

Of the two companies, HearX took the more scientifically innovative approach, employing AI technology spun out of Pretoria University, beginning with the hearing test itself. These are usually conducted by doctors and ear nose and throat specialists who use an audiometer, costing upwards of $20,000, to measure hearing ability. HearX’s innovation was to put the functions of an audiometer on a smartphone. Yet the market for hearing tests proved hard to crack and today makes up only 5 per cent of HearX’s revenue. The real breakthrough came when the company developed over-the-counter hearing aids, taking advantage of a 2022 change of legislation in the US allowing patients with mild-to-moderate hearing loss to access devices without visiting a specialist. Connected to a smartphone via bluetooth, the user adjusts the hearing aids, which look like earpods, using an app. Real-time consultations can be conducted with HearX consultants — mostly based in South Africa — who adjust the devices remotely using client information stored on the cloud. HearX’s aids retail for $999 a pair, about a fifth of the cost of a hearing aid, says Klopper. Though the market is still nascent, HearX logged some $58mn in sales in 2023. Now in its sixth funding round, the South African company has raised nearly $60mn, valuing it at $200mn or more.

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Autor: David Pilling   Quelle: (07.06.2024 - LW)
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OÖ Gebietskrankenkasse, Referat für Wissenschaftskooperation Alumni Club Medizinische Universität WiennewTreeAMREF - African Medical and Research FoundationÖsterreichische Akademie der ÄrzteEuropean Health Forum GasteinÖsterreichische Gesellschaft für Public HealthÖsterreichisches Rotes Kreuz