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Researcher's discoveries spawn Upstate New York company

December 15, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

While it may seem that products sporting the "Made in New York" label are becoming an endangered species in today's challenging business and economic climate, one small Upstate New York company is defying the odds. SensGard Sensory Protection Solutions LLC, which markets a hearing protection technology developed by a Syracuse University researcher, expects to reach $1 million in total sales early next year.

The company's flagship product is the ZEM, a simple-looking device that belies the complex physics of sound waves upon which it is based. The patented technology was developed by SU Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience Emeritus Jozef Zwislocki, founder of the Institute for Sensory Research, and is an outgrowth of his remarkable career in research on the auditory system.

Unlike traditional earplugs and earmuffs, which are designed to block sound from entering the ear canal, Zwislocki's technology actually neutralizes the sound by moving it away from the ear canal through a simple, plastic tube. The device nullifies the effect of harmful noise while enabling the wearer to continue to carry on a conversation.

"There have been no significant changes in hearing protection products on the market in 40 years," says Greg Post of Fairport, N.Y., who co-founded SensGard with Rob DiNardo of Webster, N.Y., in 2004. "We saw this technology as the most logical advancement in the field and a potential business opportunity."

Four years ago, Post and DiNardo were looking to start a new company. After attending a technology transfer workshop hosted by Rochester-based UNYTECH, they connected with Zwislocki through SU's Office of Technology Transfer. UNYTECH is a collaborative effort of Upstate New York universities to move ideas from the laboratory into the marketplace. The entrepreneurs did some market research, developed a business plan, and formed a partnership with Zwislocki to bring his idea to fruition.

"Dr. Zwislocki already had a prototype," Post says. "We were able to take the prototype and develop a way to manufacture and distribute the device on a larger scale."

Additionally, the business partners were determined that all of the manufacturing and packaging of the product would be done by Upstate New York companies. Custom Molding Solutions of Spencerport, N.Y., manufactures, assembles and packages the ZEM. The packaging materials are also produced and printed in New York state.

For Zwislocki, the venture is part of his lifelong quest to understand the fundamental nature of sound and other sensory stimuli, and the physical and psychological ways in which they affect humans.

The ZEM looks like a cross between earmuffs and ear buds. The ear buds are foam cuffs that sit in the external ear canal. Hollow tubes extend up from the ear cuffs. Sound waves vibrate the foam cuffs and enter into the space between the hollow tubes and the ear canal. The pressure created between the sound waves and the air in the tubes (sound pressure) is less than the sound pressure in the ear canal. The sound waves take the path of least resistance and are drawn into the tubes and neutralized.

"The tubes act like a vacuum and swallow up the sound waves," Zwislocki says. "The trick is to make the resistance in the tubes as low as possible so more sound can go into the tubes."

It turns out that larger-diameter tubes can absorb more sound. The ZEM now comes in two models-the original, which reduces noises by 26 decibels ($24.99), and the new SG31, which reduces noises by 31decibels ($34.49), protecting hearing in extreme noise environments without distorting speech.

The company is also researching ways to use the technology to develop earphones for MP3 players that would enable wearers to listen to their tunes in loud environments without having to turn the volume up to levels that researchers say are the leading cause of noise-induced hearing loss in children and young adults.

"We are using scientific principles of sound travel developed over decades of research to create products to prevent hearing loss," Zwislocki says. "It's not a question of money. It's about preserving hearing."

Further information about SensGard and its products is available on the Web at http://www.sensgard.com. Information about SU's Institute for Sensory Research is available at http://www.isr.syr.edu.

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