August 27, 2020
WEST LAFAYETTE – A Purdue University professor believes the device she invented years ago is now on the doorstep of helping potentially one million people overcome a hardship of Parkinson’s disease. SpeechVive, a small device that resembles a hearing aid, is worn over one ear to help the wearer overcome speech issues caused by Parkinson’s. Boosted by a recent $1.5 million funding round—and a major triumph within the Medicare system—SpeechVive’s creator says the device is now more affordable and poised to help a million patients find their voice again.
The most commonly-recognized symptom of Parkinson’s disease is the tremor that affects the limbs of the body, but the vast majority of patients—the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says nearly 90%—will also experience changes to their voice. These can include a weak or quiet voice, an increased rate of speech and slurred articulation. The combined effect is a frustrating inability to communicate clearly.
Purdue Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences Dr. Jessica Huber created SpeechVive to help patients overcome these hurdles. Worn over one ear, SpeechVive is triggered when the patient begins to speak. The device plays loud “background noise” in the person’s ear that sounds like “everyone talking at once at a cocktail party, but you can’t really understand what anyone is saying.”
This noise elicits the Lombard effect, a reflex that causes a speaker to increase their vocal effort when surrounded by a loud environment.
“All of us do this in noise; we naturally talk louder, articulate more clearly, and we tend to slow our rate,” says Huber, co-founder of SpeechVive. “By triggering the Lombard effect, [the device] makes their rate more normal, so they’re not talking as quickly, and often their articulation gets clearer or more distinct.”
It’s estimated that more than one million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s, and the vast majority are over 60 years-old, and therefore, using Medicare. While SpeechVive has been available for years, Huber has been unable to help as many patients as she’d like, because most have to pay out-of-pocket for the $3,500 device. However, the West Lafayette-based startup says it scored a “huge” victory recently by earning an HCPCS code, meaning patients can now bill Medicare for the SpeechVive device. HCPCS codes are numbers Medicare assigns to every task or service a medical practitioner may provide to a patient.
“There are a lot of companies that apply for HCPCS codes every year, and very few actually get a new code. It’s rare for Medicare to issue a new code,” says SpeechVive President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Mogensen. “When Medicare looks at it, they want to make sure it’s medically necessary, the patient can benefit from it, and they look heavily at the science behind it. The reason we [got a code] is because [Huber] has done volumes of work for the past 10 plus years and that data has been published.”
Mogensen says in the startup’s early years, advisors said there was “no way” the young company would be able to get a Medicare code, but he believes persistence and cumulating scientific data helped SpeechVive clear the hurdle. He notes private insurance companies typically follow Medicare, so he expects insurers will soon cover SpeechVive as well.
“I think of the number of patients I’ve met who could use this device, but couldn’t afford it, and I think about the impact I’ve seen the device have in the lives of patients who are able to have one,” says Huber. “I love the idea that we’ll be able to reach more of these patients and really make a big impact for people with Parkinson’s, regardless of their personal finances. The ability to really reach them is exciting to me.”
SpeechVive says the recent $1.5 million round of funding will speed its go-to-market strategy, grow its sales team and support a design update for the device in 2021. Indiana investors in the syndicated round included Elevate Ventures, Purdue Foundry Investment Fund and the SpeechVive management team. The startup recently inked a distribution agreement that Mogensen says will help the company reach its Q4 revenue goals.
“When we get a phone call or email from a customer or their spouse telling us what an impact SpeechVive has made in their lives, we still celebrate those,” says Mogensen. “It’s not lost on us; that’s why we’re doing it. That’s why we’re passionate about it.”