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Huh? Say That Again?

Hundreds of millions of people around the world have lost their hearing. In Africa, Dirk Koekemoer wants to help by getting them to sit in the shade of a tree.

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It was an idea that inspired a doctor to walk out of his practice. Dirk Koekemoer, the founder of biomedical engineering company eMoyo, spent the next 18 years building a device that helps tens of thousands to hear – all they have to do is sit under a tree and listen.

“It was 1999, I literally sat in practice and realized this is going to go on forever. I was going to see 30 patients a day for the rest of my life. I wanted to be able to treat thousands. I cancelled all my appointments that day and took the bold move to start a company,” says Koekemoer.

It cost Koekemoer $1.2 million and saw the birth of the KUDUwave, a mobile audiometer that looks like a set of headphones. Its size and the fact you can use it under a tree made it a game changer.

“A basic sound booth, at minimum, would cost R35,000 ($2,600). They can be the size of a fridge and are good for screening. But, the moment you want to do proper audiology the booths go up to R250,000 ($18,700). Then the moment you look at mobile audiology you need two booths on a mobile trailer, with a 4×4 and on a heavy trailer. You are looking at costs of R500,000 ($37,000).”

The R65,000 ($4,800) headphones are cheap and smart. They won’t operate unless the conditions are just right. One of the best places to use them is under the shade of a tree, just as well as Africa has plenty of them. They are used in the rural areas, like Zambia, where audiologists need to get around.

“Open air testing, in an area with open windows or under a tree, is the best for ear testing. A booth needs ventilation, it needs soundproofing and probably doubles the costs.”

“There are 3.5 billion people in the world that don’t have access to adequate equipment. I thought let’s create devices that can actually do the tedious things that a doctor and a nurse have to do that don’t need brainpower,” says Koekemoer.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 360 million people have hearing loss and most of them live in low- and middle-income countries.

“It’s a huge need. There are 30 million people in this country with hearing problems, 2 million need hearing aids. There are not enough audiologists and there are not enough facilities,” says Koekemoer.

“Hearing loss is a serious problem. It causes dementia and depression. Also isolation, especially in the elderly; literally their life expectancies shorten if they are unable to hear well.”

In Khayelitsha, a township 28 kilometers south east of Cape Town, this is a common challenge. This is also where we follow Koekemoer to meet with head audiologist Shireen Martin, of the Khayelitsha Hospital, who has been working with the device since July.

Koekemoer’s device has transformed the way audiologists, like Martin, work. Employed by the South Africa’s Department of Health, Martin uses the device to test patients’ hearing loss in multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).

“At first I was against the idea. I think there was a lot of speculation about it. It has to do with changing the way people work and think. I was used to sitting in a booth, sitting with a patient one-on-one. It kind of made me adverse to the idea of a mobile audiometer.”

The department employs decentralized TB treatment, which means Martin needs to travel to treat patients.

“I don’t have access to any other audio equipment. With many TB clinics that decentralized their treatment and initiation of MDR-TB, many patients are not able to go to an audiologist, with them being so far away,” she says.

Martin is the only audiologist who operates here and sees up to 60 MDR-TB patients a month.

“[Patients] do appreciate it. Because it is not far away from home, they don’t have to wait long for transport to take them to far-away hospitals. Bringing the service to them is the importance of primary healthcare, not just audiology.”

MDR-TB patients need to be monitored carefully. Hearing loss can be a side effect of the drug used to treat the disease.

“Some can lose their hearing in as short a space as a month,” says Martin. “It’s devastating, especially if it happens in a short space of time. That’s why counseling is very important; so patients know what the early signs are and the importance of them coming back.”

Koekemoer believes Martin’s work is a mere drop in the ocean, considering there are 20,000 MDR-TB patients in South Africa and the disease is very infectious.

“It’s scary. Patients can’t just jump into a taxi with their disease. They need special transport. It’s why it makes sense that the audiologists go to them,” says Koekemoer.

Koekemoer’s dream started on an even grander scale – a full mobile body scanner. It was a eureka moment in his small home office in Pretoria.

“One night at two or three o’clock in the morning, I was sitting at my desk and I started drawing a picture. It was a horrible picture. It was a full solution on how to examine a patient as good as a GP would examine a patient. Things you had to put on a patient. It wasn’t like the Star Trek scanner version you see in movies, but we are getting there,” says Koekemoer.

Koekemoer has learned the business of building medical equipment is tough.

“In 2001, when I started developing these medical devices, it was so difficult. Voice over IP wasn’t even legal then. In that type of environment, it was difficult just to find information on audiometers. At that stage I was doing deep searches on university FTP sites. I had to invent my own software to actually find the information. Now it’s easy. The rate of inventiveness increases significantly.”

Patents are expensive. According to Koekemoer a single patent costs R1 million ($75,000), and a further R500,000 ($37,000) every year after. It still doesn’t protect your devices; poached product designs are common. It can be as simple as changing a small part. Koekemoer says that in the field the headphones have a two-year advantage before similar devices appear.

“The problem is KUDUwave had got about 16 patents. It’s better to take that money and get first-mover advantage. If I can give any advice to any entrepreneur, just give up on thinking you are going to protect yourself on patents. Just get the flipping thing in the field.”

“You need to be fast, constant improvement and add additional things to the KUDUwave. In the next few days we are adding a crosscheck that will allow calibration of the device in the field.”

Next is getting the product certified. With huge backlogs worldwide, inventors struggle to get their products on shelves. The process can add years of painful delay. The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), the governing body which approves devices in the country, has no facilities to test the device as it is so unique.

“We need alternative European certification which can take five months just to get a quote for audit. It is really difficult to say no every day and not go to the US, where it is so easy to get FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval. FDA registration doesn’t count in South Africa, but it’s accepted in the rest of the world,” says Koekemoer.

Despite the uphill battles, Koekemoer is adamant that Africa is the place where his device can make the most difference.

“Re-engineering healthcare, that is what we are doing.”

So, when you see a patient with a set of headphones on while sitting under a tree, chances are they are taking a test that could change their lives.

Entrepreneurs

Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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How Three Small Businesses Are Pivoting To Stay Afloat Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

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In late February, Jeff Davidson, cofounder and co-CEO of fitness company Camp Gladiator, was on an annual boys fishing trip on Lake El Salto, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico, when he was struck by an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu. After a long day of bass fishing, he logged onto his laptop for his daily browse of investment forums, an old habit from his days as a senior vice president at AXA Advisors. Hedge fund managers and Wall Street analysts were following the development of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China, scouring the region for under-the-radar money plays. The more he read, the more he found himself feeling as he did at the start of the Great Recession. 

“I just remember the way it felt when we saw Bear Stearns go bankrupt and the panic of the stock market crash. All of that just burned really harsh memories into my mind,” Davidson says. “I immediately went back to our headquarters and told my team, ‘I think we need to be prepared for a major event.’” From Camp Gladiator’s offices in Austin, Texas, they hatched a plan, “Project Mars,” to pivot their fitness bootcamp business in real time.

Founded in 2008 by Davidson and his wife, Ally, who used the $100,000 she won after being crowned champion of NBC’s American Gladiator (which she had auditioned for on their wedding day) to launch the now $60 million company, Camp Gladiator’s training sessions were always meant to run outdoors, in public spaces like parks and schoolyards where people could come together and support one another on their fitness journeys. In recent months, Ally had been conducting a competitive analysis of the virtual workout landscape, with plans to roll out their own remote offerings in 2022. 

As state-wide shutdowns and shelter-in-place mandates have forced gyms to close indefinitely, casting the $94 billion fitness industry into financial freefall, Camp Gladiator has emerged uniquely poised to profit. While chains like Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy and billion-dollar startups like ClassPass have seen 95% of their profits evaporate overnight, Camp Gladiator’s lack of physical locations and trainer income model (the company’s 1,000 instructors collect 75% of the revenue from their classes) have served as advantages. “Camp Gladiator is like 1,000 small businesses rolled up into one medium business, because each of our trainers are local owner operators that collect the profits of their own locations,” Davidson says. 

This alignment they have with their workforce helped accelerate the launch of their virtual offerings to March 16, well ahead of competitors like Orangetheory Fitness. After a week of free #HustleAtHome classes streaming on Facebook Live, they released a 6-week virtual workout challenge for $39 (in-person memberships usually cost between $59 and $79 a month). The quick pivot paid off: Since launching two months ago, Camp Gladiator has gone from 4,000 outdoor workouts a week to nearly 10,000 Zoom workouts a week. It has retained 97% of its customer base of nearly 80,000 and has acquired an additional 20,000 customers and $700,000. The adoption rate has been so high that the Davidsons plan to maintain their virtual offering long term and have been hiring new trainers, many of which were recently laid off from other fitness companies. 

“Six weeks ago, we thought we were making a Band-Aid. Four weeks ago, we thought we were making a supplemental product offering that might be worth keeping,” Davidson says. “And now we think we’re making the way forward. There’s a chance that in a year virtual will be our primary product offering.”

Needless to say, fitness isn’t the only industry that’s been affected by the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has taken a significant toll on the majority of America’s more than 30 million small businesses, many of which are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to last the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

The restaurant industry has been especially crushed. A recent survey conducted by the Independent Restaurant Coalition and James Beard Foundation found that the food services industry only received 9% of PPP dollars, despite accounting for 60% of job losses in March. The National Restaurant Association estimates the restaurant industry lost $80 billion through April and is on track to lose $240 billion by the end of the year.

La Monarca Bakery and Café, a $15 million Los Angeles-based chain described by cofounder Ricardo Cervantes as “if a Mexican bakery and Starbucks had a baby,” expects revenues to drop as much as 40% across his 12 locations this year. “Being that we purposely positioned ourselves in working class Hispanic neighborhoods, we are in areas where the employer and employee basis have been hit the hardest,” Cervantes says. “We have not stopped,” he adds, referring to the work he and cofounder Alfredo Livas have been doing to adapt to the new normal. They’ve kept all of their locations open for pick-up and take-out and reduced all costs and management salaries in an effort to keep the majority of their team intact (about 10% were laid off) and expand their business to include more prepackaged items and family meal options. In response to the needs of their local communities, they started carrying essential items like milk, butter, flour, paper towels, toilet paper and bleach. “Some of our neighborhoods do not have access to large supermarkets or Costco, and if they do, many individuals don’t usually have the resources to stockpile two months of toilet paper,” Cervantes explains. “They need daily goods but in smaller quantities and that’s what we’ve been providing.”

When the duo met as MBA students at Stanford Business School in 2001, they had no idea they would someday be putting their finance degrees to work like this. “We are busier today than we have ever been—and that is not to say that business is great. As the analogy goes, we’re building this new airplane while we are in the air,” he says. 

But while the need for social distancing has forced business closures around the world, taking a toll on every sector, some like the wine industry have found somewhat of a silver lining. According to data from Nielsen, wine sales for off-premise consumption during the period from March 1 to April 18 were up 29% as compared to the same period year-over-year, with total alcohol sales for off-premise consumption up 24%. 

Kingston Family Vineyards is banking on this trend. Founded in 1998 by Courtney Kingston, the $3 million family-run business is headquartered in Portola Valley, California, with a 100-year-old farm and 350-acre vineyard in Chile’s Casablanca Valley that doubles as a premier tourist destination, one that’s been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for the past six years. It produces just 3,500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc annually (they sell 90% of their grapes to other winemakers), so when Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe on March 19, Kingston lost a significant amount of revenue during what’s been their most profitable season of the year. 

With Kingston’s 20th wine-grape harvest of the year well underway, the vineyard shifted to offering virtual wine tastings, shipping bottles to customers in advance. Revenue in the U.S. for the month of April was down just 10% year-over-year.

“Based on these virtual tastings, we’ve made up a lot of revenue with a totally new business,” Kingston says. “Before the coronavirus, hosting guests in an intimate setting was key to how we shared our small corner of the world with others. They’d often become customers for a lifetime. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we can’t do that. The bright light in the darkness is what we can do.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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