Finnish-Canadians at work: Topnotch treatment for tinnitus

A club night in London gave Peter Phua an incessant ringing in his ear. Three years later his company AudioNotch offers a specialized treatment for people suffering from tinnitus.

Nowadays, when Peter Phua goes out to clubs, he has a set of earplugs with him, without exception. That´s because back in 2010, when he was enjoying himself with a few friends at London´s Crazy frog club, he most certainly didn´t, and ended up coming home with a persistent ringing in his ears which made life rather hard.

“I couldn´t sleep for months, it was really bad”, Peter remembers.

He was surprised to hear from a doctor that there aren´t any cures for tinnitus, a medical condition that affects millions of people in the world. Tinnitus is linked to hearing loss and is caused by loud, constant noise exposure.

“I was pretty pissed off with the lack of treatments available to me so I started doing research on the internet and found out about notched sound therapy”, Peter tells of the starting point to his work with tinnitus treatment.

After finding out about notched sound therapy he decided to try it on himself and to try and commercialize it in an easy way with the help of a friend who had experience in programming and mathematics.

What AudioNotch offers is a tailor-made notched sound therapy that lowers the volume of tinnitus, and thus reduces distress caused by the disease. He emphasizes that this is not a cure per se, but makes it easier to live with the condition.
The therapy is based on listening to music or white noise from which the frequency of the user´s tinnitus tone has been removed or “notched out”. This has been shown to reduce the tinnitus volume as the activity of the auditory neurons causing tinnitus is reduced.

There are a few competitors in the field but AudioNotch is somewhat different as it doesn’t require customers to buy a certain device. They can listen to their own music on their own devices with the AudioNotch therapy set in. After buying the subscription to the therapy online users find out their own tinnitus tone with a tuner and then modify music or white noise with a “Notching Algorithm to cut out the right frequency. In order for the treatment to be effective they then should listen to this modified sound for two to three hours per day for several months. The subscriptions are either for two or six months.

“We work with a few research groups who have done studies on this and they indicate that the effect lasts longer the longer you stick to the treatment”, Peter says. “The data is still experimental though, so we don´t know exactly how long it lasts.”

As a medical student he is very careful to base all his claims on research and not exaggerate or make false promises. The company was started in 2011 and has had around 400 subscriptions already. Peter´s plan is to take this year off of medical school and focus on growing AudioNotch before going back to finish his Master´s degree.

Peter himself tried the treatment back when his tinnitus was really irking him but says that for him the solution to the issue came about another way.

“I just got used to it, it doesn’t bother me anymore. They refer to it as habituation, just happens to some people.”

Mixed heritage

Peter´s family moved from Finland to Canada when he was just a baby. His mother Taina is Finnish, from Mehtäkylä near Kalajoki, in the North-Western part of the country, and his dad Bob Singaporean. The family settled into Toronto´s Agricola church where Peter´s parents worked as caretakers.

He says Finnish culture has always been a part of his family´s life and up until the recent years his mother would speak to him mostly in Finnish. Being of a mixed race background means ethnic identity is a little bit trickier though.

“We would open presents on Christmas eve and eat näkkileipä and things like that. I really like Finnish people, I´ve always felt welcome there. But ethnic identity is not really important to me, people are people. And when you´re mixed you never really belong in any category, not fully Asian, not fully white.. “, Peter explains.

He has visited Finland many times, though not in the recent years, and always finds it pleasant to go back.


Technology aiding medicine


As to how he ended up with medicine, Peter says he has always been into science and
had a strong will to succeed academically.

“I was always a good student, and at the school I went to, all the other kids were from more well-off families than ours so I think that made me ambitious socio-economically. I decided that I wanted to be a doctor when I was 16.”

As for his plans in the future, he says he would like to become a physician-entrepreneur and be part of bringing in more every-day technology to aid treatments in the medical field.

“I feel technology is still greatly under-utilized in some ways. For instance smart phone apps could be very useful in tracking people´s condition and recovery after they are released from a hospital, which could prevent readmission because of complications.”

AudioNotch might therefore just be the first step in Peter´s entrepreneurial journey.

“I don´t have that much technical skill myself but I feel my role could be see the problems and look at how technology could help to solve them. I would definitely see myself creating something else besides AudioNotch as well.”

Visit the AudioNotch website.

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