David E. Mitchell Award of Distinction: $25,000
Dr. Henry Luo
Henry Luo’s father was a doctor, and so was his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and so on for two more generations. Luo, who is from China and now lives in Waterloo, Ont., is an engineer by training who can’t help but work with doctors. That’s how he’s carved out a career inventing solutions to some of the most complex problems facing the hearing impaired.
Luo grew up in Jiangsu, north of Shanghai. He studied electronic engineering at Shanghai’s East China University of Science and Technology and after graduating embarked on doctoral work at the University of Sussex in the U.K. There, his fascination with the human ear bloomed. Luo conducted research into intelligent hearing aids, devices that do more than amplify the world around someone whose hearing is diminished, and completed his doctorate in fewer than three years.
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In 1998, after working in Japan and the U.S., Luo landed at Unitron Hearing, a Waterloo company that develops leading-edge hearing aids. By 2004, Luo was pondering acoustic shock, those annoying sounds—a door slamming, a plate breaking, even the tapping of a pen on a desk—that make life miserable for the hearing impaired. Existing aids only amplified those sounds, frustrating endlessly those who relied on the devices. Scientists had struggled with the problem for decades. “You want to control shock, but you don’t want to affect any natural sound, particularly speech,” says Luo. Noise reduction technology, once offered as a solution, wouldn’t work, because it only reacted to a “slow change in noise, like a machine or party” where the troubling sound was more constant.
The big moment came at a Christmas party, where Luo found himself in a room full of people who were singing and dancing. He began to think deeply about how to manage all those competing sounds. Over the next two years, fuelled by a budding relationship with Unitron’s team of audiologists, Luo devised a way to separate the sound of a slamming door from that of a human voice. Detectors within a hearing device automatically identify spikes in signals, and before the sound reaches the human ear—in a matter of microseconds—the speaker dampens the sound. Luo patened what’s known as AntiShock technology, now on the market for seven years.
After a career that took him around the world, Luo’s found a natural home at Unitron, where there’s a team that supports him. “This is a place I can really continue to offer new ideas and new technology for the organization to help people in the world,” he says. Indeed, since it hit the market, Luo’s Antishock technology remains an industry leader.