Earwax build-up is a nasty fact of life for many people, some of whom go to great lengths to clean their ears. Far beyond Q-tips, doctors have reported patients using pens, bobby pins and even construction nails to dig out earwax. (Ouch!)
But it turns out all that poking and jabbing makes earwax buildup even worse. That’s part of the reason 231,000 people have their ears professionally cleaned every week in the U.S.
Now, there may be a new solution next time you drop by the doctor’s office: Earwax cleaning headphones.
Seattle biomedical engineer Aadil Diwan is regularly one of those people fighting earwax. Like many other Americans, he gets impacted earwax — a hard buildup of earwax that can cause pain, hearing loss and other problems. It can occur naturally, but it’s becoming more and more common as people cram all sorts of things into their ears.
So after years of doctors’ visits, Diwan thought — why can’t I invent something to make cleaning ears easier and more efficient?
He teamed up with his brother — tech entrepreneur Sahil Diwan — and fellow engineering PhD students at the University of Arizona to found SafKan: a Seattle startup developing a device that can clean out a patients’ ears automatically in just 35 seconds.
Here’s how it works. A nozzle on the headphones sprays a mix of warm water and hydrogen peroxide into the patient’s ear canal, loosening the earwax and flushing it out. The nozzle also suctions the water and earwax back into the device to avoid messy spills.
Based in Seattle, SafKan took home first prize and a $145,000 investment at the Seattle Angel Conference Wednesday. The prize is the first outside funding for the startup, and the beginning of its seed round.
Sahil Diwan said the device, called the SafKan Set, is a huge improvement on the current way impacted earwax is treated.
Right now the process is very low tech: the patient leans over a bucket while a doctor or nurse uses a giant metal syringe to pump water into their ear until the earwax comes out.
It’s not only unpleasant and awkward for everyone involved, it’s also bad business, Diwan told GeekWire.
“Physicians and providers are actually losing money every single time they do one of these procedures, right now. And it’s simply because of labor costs,” he said. “With our device, it actually makes it profitable.”
While the SafKan Set is designed to be used for impacted earwax, there’s no reason a doctor couldn’t use it for more routine ear cleaning, Diwan said.
But, alas, it will only available for doctors and other care providers — at least for the foreseeable future.
Diwan said the funds from the Angel Conference will help the startup accelerate its manufacturing — until now, all the prototypes and early models of the device have been made with 3D printers.
“This money will actually help us manufacture our first batch of devices to send out to physicians,” Diwan said.
It will also help the company speed up the FDA clinical trial of SafKan Set, a requirement for low-level devices like this one.
Pricing for the device has not been set, but the company is hopeful the earwax-cleaning device will be approved and in beta testing by January 2018. In addition to selling the device to healthcare professionals, SafKan plans to sell packs of the water/hydrogen peroxide mix that go in the device, creating a recurring revenue model for the company.
SafKan was founded in 2016 and currently has 7 employees, many of them the engineers who worked with Aadil Diwan to develop the device. Its headquarters are in Seattle, with some engineers based in Tucson, Arizona.