Crain’s Business Innovator Sreek Cherukuri, M.D.

 Crain’s Chicago Business, Innovators section.
Published October 29, 2015
by Kathrine Davis.

This Doctor Designed His Own Line of Hearing Aids

An estimated 35 million Americans are hearing-impaired, yet less than a third of them use a hearing aid. One reason: A typical hearing aid costs $1,500 while top-of-the-line models go for as much as $5,000, too much for many people.

Dr. Sreekant Cherukuri, an ear, nose and throat specialist, sells hearing aids that range from $349 to $549 apiece. He also invented them.

Cherukuri, 43, who practices medicine in Munster, Ind., developed a prototype in 2008, after ordering hearing aids on eBay and taking them apart to learn what goes into them and how to build one himself. He launched MDHearingAid and his first device the next year. He has sold more than 200,000 hearing aids via the company’s website, mail order and the phone, and his company has 22 employees.

MDHearingAid, which manufactures its devices in Detroit, where Cherukuri says he found plenty of capable talent, has three models: the PRO which is analog, the AIR digital and FIT, an in-ear model designed for younger, more active individuals. He keeps his prices down by keeping his products pretty basic. His analog and digital hearing aids are behind-the-ear models and all three lack Bluetooth technology, which means they are not compatible with smartphones or other devices, like many hearing aids are today.

“We purposefully kept out some of the battery-draining features to produce the best pieces with the highest quality at our price point,” he says.

While the cheaper price means more people can afford an MDHearingAid, Marie Vetter, an audiologist at Chicago Hearing Services, says patients often like more advanced devices. “I see most people going for the more technology-based models because the sound quality is so much better and so different than the low-end hearing aids,” she says.

Little fish, big pond

The hearing aid market is dominated by a half-dozen global companies, including Sonova of Switzerland, Germany’s Siemens and William Demant in Denmark. Devices made by Glenview-based Beltone work with smartphones.

Dominic Tunzi, 77, of Elgin, has used MDHearingAid’s analog model (the PRO) since last December after being dissatisfied with other brands. He decided to try MDHearingAid based on customer reviews and says he has been pleased with the device’s sound quality. “I like the way you can (adjust) the volume,” he says. “The customer service people are great—they help you out any way they can. For the money, it’s a pretty good product.”

Cherukuri says he may become a customer one day, too. He has been a DJ since his days at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. In his early 30s, he noticed that his hearing was getting worse in his left ear. He likes FIT: “This is the hearing aid I’ll be using.”