The past few years have been an incredible time for innovation. While scientists are working hard to protect us from COVID-19, Chris Parks is exploring what we can do to help those wearing masks. Parks noticed that many hearing aid users were experiencing challenges with mask strings catching on their devices. He saw the problem and knew he could come up with a solution to help prevent losing or damaging a hearing aid while trying to remove a mask.
Parks is a mechanical engineering student minoring in entrepreneurship at University of Portland. As he began prototyping, Parks recruited family to his cause. While he focuses on inventing, creating the initial prototype and marketing, his parents are handling the legal aspects including filing patents. His brother also supports the efforts with prototype testing. The end result of this effort was a clip device that assists the wearer in removing a mask without affecting their hearing aids.
In the U.S., 7.1% of adults over 45 years wear a hearing aid. On average, a user replaces them every three to seven years, this can be much more frequent for younger users. And the replacements can cost users anywhere from $400-$6,000 depending on the quality.
While there are several types of hearing aids, Parks said his primary target is people wearing behind the ear hearing aids, or BTE.
“Masks for this community are very difficult,” said Parks. “If a person is not careful, the mask can get caught in the hearing aid and then it can get ripped off and damaged or lost, which is not a very fun thing to experience.” Not to mention the cost of the replacement.
“I thought that’s not fair to this community and definitely not safe for them because most of them are 65 and older or in general, elderly people,” Parks continued. “Their immune systems are not as great as young and healthy people. I wanted to make something that would allow everyone to have the same level of safety as everyone else.”
“Adding this clip device I made, allows them to have some extra leverage to be able to pull the mask off without having to struggle.” He continues by adding that this innovation is important to him because he sees a community that is suffering. When he was doing interviews, some of the people wearing BTE hearing aids opted to not wear a mask as a substitute for wearing their hearing aids because they are afraid of losing their hearing aids when removing their masks.
Parks is also trying to help others outside of the BTE hearing aid community. His secondary target is mask wearers in general. He found during market research that many have difficulty taking off the straps around the ears. “I didn’t realize there was a problem until I spoke with people.”
To assist his road to market, Parks decided to compete in the Invent Oregon competition and made it to the finals receiving $2,500 to further his progress. The goal of Invent Oregon is to help college innovators throughout the state move their prototypes to commercialization and create positive change in their communities. When a team joins the program, they are partnered with professional mentors and receive support from faculty and staff at their college.
Throughout the Invent Oregon competition, Parks said he has learned a lot of new skills including how to use AutoCAD to visually create his idea, how to make 3D files, print them and slice them to create a physical prototypes. He has also learned how to create a website along with other skills that will aid him in future ventures.
“I also realized there are a lot of smaller skills and things you need to know to get from concept to prototype.”
During the last year, Parks has also re-experienced his love of drawing, diagrams and schematics. “I rediscovered that feeling I had as a child of what it felt like to draw and make things. The difference now, is that instead of just having it on paper, I’m actually able to bring it to life.”
He also discovered there are a lot of opportunities for students right now to start and grow their own businesses and most of the resources are free. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people are willing to help college students and they’re just really, really, helpful. And people give a lot of insight, a lot of advice and I’ve learned from them.” Parks is already developing and testing his next innovation to help more folks wear masks with comfort.
Looking forward, Parks is excited to tap into his growing network of professionals and students from other teams for inspiration as he works to bring Hearlix’s first accessible technology to market.