Amid the good cheer, ribbon, balloons, hors d'oeuvres and other accoutrements common to a celebration – in this case, the official launch of Sonova’s innovation lab at Communitech – Martin Grieder plainly articulated the serious work that lies ahead:

“We basically sell a product nobody wants,” Grieder, Sonova’s Group Vice-President of Marketing, told an audience who had gathered Friday to welcome Sonova, the Swiss-based company that specializes in hearing- care solutions, to the local corporate innovation fold.

It’s now the job of Sonova lab Director Mike Clewley, along with his six-member team, to help change that perception.

“This is precisely where the Sonova Innovation Lab comes in,” said Grieder. “They will help us transform a stigmatized hearing aid into a desirable, healthy-living companion.


Sonova hopes to find ways to transform hearing-aid devices
into smart technology. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

“We have a vision in the not-so-distant future where people will actually be proud of wearing [a hearing aid]. We will provide them with bionic hearing and those people will associate well-hearing with well-being.

“And the innovation lab here, in Kitchener, at Communitech, will play a key role in bringing this vision alive, together with everyone else at Sonova.”

Based in Stäfa, Switzerland, Sonova has 14,000 employees, operates in  100 countries and had a considerable presence in Waterloo Region well before the lab’s opening: Unitron, one of five brands that now operates under the Sonova umbrella, has its headquarters in Kitchener.

Sonova’s CEO, Arnd Kaldowski, likened the mission ahead – fostering innovation within a large corporation – to teaching “an elephant how to dance.

“Some people will say large companies by definition have to be slow,” Kaldowski said. “I happen to believe that’s wrong.

“So how do you get an elephant to dance? There are lots of things you have to do, but one of the things is you have to create areas and spaces where people get together, and they can think and explore and experiment outside of the norm.”

Kaldowski said that when the company first began casting about for a location for its lab, it focused on this side of the Atlantic because “certain technologies move faster in North America than in Europe.”


At left, Sonova CEO Arnd Kalkowski and, at right, Sonova lab
Director Mike Clewley. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

But it was largely the tech and talent bona fides of the local ecosystem that led it to zero in specifically on Waterloo Region, and Communitech.

“I think the Waterloo and Kitchener area, with the University of Waterloo, was very strong,” said Kaldowski. “Obviously [BlackBerry, based in Waterloo] has a background as a technology hub. [So there are] lots of things which are relevant to us.”

Clewley, the lab’s director, has a long track record locally, having spent nearly 18 years at BlackBerry in product management and product development. He joined Sonova last June. He said the lab will largely focus on software, and will also be a place where Sonova employees can come and learn about the innovation projects undertaken and take part in them.

“How, through digital technology, do we bring value to consumers?” Clewley said, when asked to describe his lab’s approach and intention. “You're going to have this thing in your ear; how do we start to bring value to the user with [their] connection to their phones [and] through connection to the Internet? How do we help those patients who have these hearing aids and potentially have other medical problems?”

Kaldowski said the lab will operate with a measure of autonomy and he wants it “to be a place where new ideas flourish.

“The objective is really to be open-minded.”