Before wearables were a movement, IoT was a buzzword, and before BlackBerry made Waterloo Region a tech magnet, there was Unitron.
As the company celebrated its 50-year anniversary earlier this month, it was a time to reflect on a serendipitous history that has left a mark on the region, and on the hearing devices and software industry in which it has thrived.
What hasn’t changed in five decades is Unitron’s tendency to be ahead of its time.
It was 1964 when Unitron was founded in Newfoundland, the landing place for its three German immigrant co-founders: Fred Stork, Rolf Strothmann and Rolf Dohmer.
Before coming up with the name “Universal Electronics” – Unitron – the trio were in the business of radio and television sales and repairs. But at the time there wasn’t much demand in Newfoundland, which lagged in broadcast infrastructure.
They left the sales and repair business, founded their new venture and moved to Waterloo Region, drawn here by the large German population, access to a large, skilled labour force and talent from the University of Waterloo.
Getting going as a new business was tough, just like it is for startups today.
“They weren’t so convinced they were going to make it,” says Jan Metzdorff, President of Unitron since 2011, reflecting on those early days.
The hearing industry was also relatively new and the three co-founders didn’t have much to go on, aside from fiddling around with components to see what would work, and releasing their first hearing aid in 1965.
“It took them a couple of years before they actually came to sort of a winning formula, where they started to take off,” Metzdorff says.
Unitron’s first big breakthrough was in 1966, when it released the first rechargeable hearing aid on the market. “The idea was that you could recharge the hearing aid without replacing the battery, but it was fairly bulky solution to the problem,” he says.
History is repeating itself, according to Metzdorff, who is now faced with a similar situation.
“That’s a concept we are looking at today, but in a slightly more sophisticated way, like charging the aid like you would your phone or other electronic devices,“ he says.
The late ‘60s were capped off with Unitron opening up its first subsidiary in Germany, and then expanding into the U.S. during the mid-‘70s.
The company kept pace with the market in the ‘70s, but it wasn’t until the ‘80’s that Unitron found its rhythm, when the move from analog to programmable hearing aids started.
The transition from analog was a defining moment in the industry and for Unitron.
“Many manufactures simply didn’t make the curve and there was a big consolidation in the industry, where companies came together and pooled resources,” Metzdorff says.
When digital technology finally came to fruition in the late ‘90s Unitron really started to pull ahead in the market, with the creation of the Toccata chip, the platform for digital hearing aids.
The company had again come full-circle in 1998, spinning off Dspfactory, which developed the Toccata, with Mike Stork – Fred’s son – at the helm.
“Unitron was my father’s startup and Dspfactory was my startup, 30 years later,” Mike Stork told Exchange Magazine last fall.
Mike Stork is now an angel investor in the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem, and donated $1 million to the Velocity Venture Fund in March of this year. He also pledged $1 million towards a startup fund at Wilfrid Laurier University, to be administered by students, last October.
The Toccata was the answer Unitron had needed, because the research and development team had been limited by the technology that existed previously.
“A lot of this stuff couldn’t be implemented because we didn’t have the computing power; it was really when we went digital that things came out of the draw,” Metzdorff says, referring to advancements such as the award-winning AntiShock, developed to tackle specific problems.
The year 2000 wasn’t just the start of a new millennium, but a pivotal moment for Unitron.
“We were acquired by a company called Phonak in Switzerland, and today that group is known as the Sonova Group…globally, the biggest player in hearing health,” Metzdorff says.
Since the acquisition and advancements in digital, Unitron has been on a fast track, increasing the number of products it releases each year.
“In the last five to 10 years, we have opened up quite a few subsidiaries and group companies around the world, and now we are in 23 different countries,” Metzdorff says.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years, we have grown at twice the speed of market growth, [and] we expect that we will continue to for a number of years.”
Since an average of one in seven people will suffer hearing loss and need a hearing device, he adds, the demand is definitely there.
Ahead of the trend, Unitron has been unwittingly operating in the Internet of Things (IoT) space, with wireless technology connecting hearing aids to devices such as car navigation systems, televisions and smartphones.
“In the future your phone will be a remote control for your hearing aid, but also a source for various information, and [it will] help you make adjustments on your hearing aid based on different listening situations,” he says.
It’s that way of looking at problems and finding solutions that has kept Unitron in the game for half a century.
“We went from probably 30 to 40 global players to just six or seven key players today,” Metzdorff says.
He attributes the success to two main ingredients: “Accessibility to good audiology, and we’re very close to the University of Western Ontario and its National Centre of Audiology. The other is the access to software engineers [at] the University of Waterloo, and the whole tech region here.”
Although Unitron is now a global player, there is a sense of loyalty to the region that has helped build them.
“We’re a Canadian company; this is our legacy and we have come out of this region.”