The alumnus who cured his own deafness
Middle three: Sabina Ball, Ingeborg Hochmair, and Geoff Ball at the Life Award banquet.
Geoff Ball ’86 still remembers clearly the day his life’s work became the unexpected collateral damage of a terrorist attack.
He was in Denver, celebrating the public launch of his medical device company at a conference attended by 250 people. The company had, at that point, raised millions of dollars and recently received FDA approval to market its products in the USA. During a coffee break, Ball noticed a group huddled around a television.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001, and they were watching the World Trade Center towers collapse after being hit by a pair of hijacked airliners.
The New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq closed, and remained that way until September 17. When Wall Street reopened for business, the market fell 684 points in one day and 1,370 points within a week—the biggest losses in NYSE history.
Ball’s fledgling company didn’t stand a chance.
“I knew it was over,” Ball said. “We were a young company with young stock. I lost everything. That builds character, though.”
And alumnus Geoff Ball is somebody who has spent a lot of time building character—after all, he cured his own deafness not long after graduating from the University of Oregon.
Ball grew up in Silicon Valley, near Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. His father had his own startup company, and at the age of 10 Ball spent his weekends stripping wires to help the engineers. Deaf since three—he lost his hearing following a severe fever—he struggled in school, largely because hearing aids just amplified sound instead of also making it clearer. He spent hours with speech therapists, and when he wasn’t in school or helping his father, he spent time enjoying the relative quiet of nature.
An avid skier, kayaker, swimmer, and runner, it was the opportunity to continue his education in a region that would allow him to continue his outdoor pursuits that led Ball to Eugene and the UO.
“As a deaf student with special needs, I was scared to death,” he said. “Everyone seemed so smart. I couldn’t believe they let me in—it was too good to be true.”
Travis, Geoff, Tristan, Sabina, and Trevor Ball.
Ball thrived at the UO though, and found mentors in professors such as Donald Van Rossen, who was a tenured professor when he wasn’t busy coaching Olympians in the pool. After his graduation from the now defunct College of Human Development and Performance in 1986, Ball went to Stanford to work as a junior researcher with a leading head and neck surgeon. While in Palo Alto, he invented a device that disobeyed several established electromagnetic principles, much to the curiosity of his peers.
“It’s a spiritual experience when you’ve worked so long and hard on a problem that you get to a point where you understand something that nobody else does,” Ball said. “Nobody would believe me for three or four years that I was doing it.”
Ball’s device was the world’s most sensitive Laser Doppler vibrometer, which made minute vibrations on surfaces. He used that technology to create the Floating Mass Transducer (FMT), a tiny converter that transmits vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear. The FMT was then put in his device the Vibrant Soundbridge, an implant with an external audio processor.
The Soundbridge made sound clearer as well as louder, solving the problems he’d had with hearing aids. When he became one of the first people to have the Soundbridge implanted, he made world history.
“I’m the only person in history who had a chronic disease who invented his own cure,” he said. “I think that’s kind of cool.”
Ball filed his first FMT patent in 1993, and within a year had raised $6.5 million. He left Stanford in order to continue raising the money needed to produce the device, and hired Harry Robbins to run his new company, Symphonix, while he focused on research and development.
Symphonix got European approval in 1998 to implant devices in hearing impaired people throughout Europe, and soon after got FDA approval for US trials.
“We were going to change the world,” Ball said.
Then three hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Close to 3,000 people were killed in the terrorist attack, and numerous companies such as Ball’s were left reeling from the economic fallout.
Enter Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair, founders of Austrian medical device company MED-EL. MED-EL bought Symphonix, and Ball relocated to Austria to continue his work on hearing devices. In Austria, Ball invented the Bonebridge, a hearing device that attaches directly to the skull and can be used by people with conductive or mixed hearing loss, as well as people who are only deaf in one ear.
The Bonebridge—which individuals as young as five can use—has proven to be incredibly popular throughout Europe. In 2013, Ball received the Life Award, given to Austrians who work toward the “positive perception and inclusion of people with disabilities.”
“I’m the only non-Austrian in history to earn it,” Ball said. “That was one of the greatest nights of my life.”
In addition to holding more than 100 patents, Ball is also the recipient of the Austrian State Prize for Innovation (2014), the Red Dot Design Award (2013), the Politzer Society Prize (2001), the Engineer of the Year award (1999) and the Silicon Valley Inventor of the Year award (1998). Currently the chief technical officer at MED-EL, Ball is still heavily involved in research and development, looking for the next breakthrough in hearing devices.
Husband to Sabina and father of Travis, Trevor, and Tristan, Ball—who still enjoys the outdoors and can be seen skiing and sledding in Innsbruck when the snow is deep on the ground—is driven by the same urge that put Silicon Valley on the map and once helped a deaf student at the UO make a name for himself: the desire to learn and succeed.
“When you make a breakthrough, you understand two or three new things that nobody else understands,” he said. “You learn two or three supercool ideas that nobody else knows about. When you have a group, you all experience and learn new things, and get new ideas. The only way to get new ideas is by doing it.”