Cancer treatment saves lives, but also leaves behind mental scars with high rates of mental health issues noted in recovering patients who are dealing with the after-effects of having a laryngectomy.
A partial or full removal of the larynx (also known as the ‘voice box’ because it contains the vocal cords that help create how a person sounds) can result in voice loss and the inability to regain a natural-sounding speaking voice.
Voice replacement treatments and technologies that generate a monotone, robotic-sounding voice can leave patients feeling embarrassed to express themselves fully. Doctor Farzane Ahmadi, the founder and CEO of Laronix, noted many such patients she worked with used anti-depressants and sadly observed that the suicide rate among laryngectomees was abnormally high.
Laronix began its first trials in Bionic Voice technology in 2019, introducing the world’s first smart wearable electronic voice prosthesis for throat cancer patients who had undergone a laryngectomy procedure, and subsequently lost their ability to speak. Bionic Voice substitutes and regenerates patients’ missing “voice source”, without the need to use invasive corrective procedures.
From idea to industry-leading innovation
Dr Ahmadi describes the establishment of Laronix as a “turning point,” prompting her to leave her academic life behind: “I stopped talking about it, and decided to start actually doing something,” she says.
Having worked with laryngectomees – a person who has had a full or partial laryngectomy – from 2009, Dr Ahmadi saw within her patients and case studies a desperate need to restore this part of their human experience.
The more time she spent with her patients, the more she realised the loss of their voice, and the frustration of having no alternatives other than surgical procedures and manual voicebox prosthesis, had the potential to induce severe depression.
Restoring both voice and hope
“The more we sat with these people we realised that, actually, this is really crushing them and no one had found a solution,” Dr Ahmadi says.
As a result, Dr Ahmadi and Laronix developed the world-first Bionic Voice technology, providing a non-invasive, wearable system integrating hardware and software to generate an “ultra-realistic, natural” voice for laryngectomees.
It’s expected that the AI module will eventually be able to learn, adapt and replicate the patient’s true voice, bringing excitement, expression and human connectedness back into the conversation.
The technology is a worldwide collaboration, with development occurring in Singapore, Australia and Japan. Once the technology was mature enough it was brought to the University of Western Sydney, where Laronix was born and continues to drive it towards market availability.
With Bionic Voice technology given the go-ahead, the major obstacle to achieving commercialisation was funding. “Although the technology is revolutionary, it was still premature from an investment perspective,” Dr Ahmadi says.
In August 2021, Laronix was awarded much needed funding of $551,100 through the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation Programme, enabling it to continue its push towards manufacturing readiness, regulatory approvals, product adoption and Key Opinion Leader endorsements through the direct funding assistance and key mentorship opportunities offered by the program.
Supported by i4 Connect Facilitator Jenny Aiken, Laronix was guided and mentored through the grant application process, which helped strengthen its commercialisation strategy.
From this perspective, Dr Ahmadi admits; “There is nothing more valuable than having a group of excellent mentors such as Jenny challenge your thinking to help you improve your work and move forward.”
The advice and experience imparted by Jenny was a major stepping-stone towards commercialising the Bionic Voice technology.
“Working with Jenny gave us such a strong foundation to grow and develop the business. It was life changing and possibly life-saving, given the potential of the technology.”
“I was impressed with Dr Ahmadi’s dedication to ensure that her novel voice technology would help one of the most vulnerable patient populations; those who have lost their voice through a laryngectomy procedure,” says i4 Connect Facilitator, Jenny Aiken.
“She did not only want to restore their voice, she wanted to provide the most non-invasive, natural sounding solution possible. She had a clear path to market and was meticulous in her business planning. Despite previously being an academic, she had done everything possible to upskill herself to ensure the commercial success of her early-stage company.”
On the horizon
One challenge facing this type of technology is product adoption because it does not yield instant results for patients who have not had recent use of their voice, as they need to undergo voice training using the device. Laronix hopes that assistance from the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation service can result in more seamless product adoption in hospitals and treatment programs, to raise awareness of this new technology.
The journey of Laronix’s Bionic Voice technology towards commercialisation is close to complete. Dr Ahmadi says the next goal is the successful integration of mobile device-friendly software and refining the technology for commercially viability.
With its potential to change, improve and save lives, the work of Laronix stands as a ground-breaking display of determination, innovation, creativity and – above all – humanity.