MUHS alum’s new company uses 3-D technology to preserve healthy ears

MIDDLEBURY — Your ears are as distinctive as your fingerprints: That’s the essence of Murmur, a new Silicon Valley company founded by Cornwall native Jordan Sax.
Using three-dimensional scanners, that consist of lasers and cameras, and 3-D printers, Murmur creates custom hearing-protection products that contour to the exact shape of individual ear canals.
Sax, who got his family involved in high-tech startup, returns to Addison County this weekend to show off the technology, gather feedback and show the folks in his hometown what he’s been up to.
What Murmur creates is hearing production devices that stick in one’s ear. One such product is an earpiece that allows people to hear normally until the moment a gun is fired. Using no batteries or electronic components, the piece consists of a specialized filter that closes the moment it makes contact with a sound wave.
Another earpiece, meant for concertgoers, allows noise attenuation across all frequencies so, according to Murmur’s website, one can hear “the high notes without the high cost to your hearing.” Other applications for the technology protect ears in construction or industrial settings, and block out noise for sleeping.
A graduate of the Bridge School, Middlebury Union High School (1999) and Middlebury College (2004), Sax now resides in Berkeley, Calif. He was first exposed to ear protection while serving as a flight surgeon in the Air National Guard. He joined the service while studying at the University of Vermont Medical School, where he earned his MD in 2009.
As a member of the Guard, his duties included making custom ear pieces for pilots, who need them to communicate in the otherwise roaring noise of the F-15 and F-16 aircraft. In order to make the pieces, Sax had to inject liquid silicone into a pilot’s ears. Then, once the silicone hardened, the mold would be used to make a cast for custom earpieces.
“Each (earpiece cost) just south of $1,000 and took over a month to arrive,” Sax said. “It was a difficult and time-consuming process.”
The idea for creating a better solution first came to him while completing his medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
“The soundtrack of an emergency room is people groaning, vomiting, things beeping — it’s not a very pleasing aural soundtrack for the doctors, and even more so for the patients,” he said.
According to Sax, many patients have trouble sleeping while in the hospital, given the 24-hour movement of doctors and other patients. Citing mounting evidence that sleep is necessary to good health, Sax said ear protection doesn’t aid just those recovering in emergency rooms, but also anyone with trouble sleeping.
“There’s a ton of evidence that shows your athletic performance (and) intellectual ability improves with adequate sleep. I think we live in a society where everyone is busy and we’re not sleeping enough,” he said. “Trying to get better sleep is really the cornerstone. It’s self-evident to a lot of people that sleep is necessary to good health.”
After Sax completed his residency, he and his wife Dana relocated to Berkeley, where he now works as an emergency physician. His ER work reaffirmed the need for a new kind of ear protection device.
“The low end (option) has been to jam something in your ears, jam the little foam things or squirt goo in your ear. The high-end approach has been custom earpieces with electronics where you can selectively choose which frequencies you want to enhance and which ones you want to block,” he said. “There hasn’t been a mid-range product that custom fits to a person so it’s comfortable, but also offers some of the same functionality as some of the same higher-end stuff.”
After several years of working with ear protection technologies, and seeing the opportunity in the market, Sax decided to launch Murmur last year. Admitting he has no prior business experience, Sax said the infectious spirit of entrepreneurship in the San Francisco Bay Area contributed to his decision to launch the company.
“(It was) exciting and terrifying at the same time,” he said. “I was flying blind, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
To fund the purchase of the 3-D scanning devices, product research and development, marketing and the creation of a website, Sax spent his personal savings, something he “managed to do quite well.”
When it became clear that he needed capital to buy more machines and truly lift the company off the ground, he did something many high-tech entrepreneurs have done — he turned to his family for financial support. After he made each family member — mother Peggy, father Shel and brother Peter — a pair of custom earpieces, all agreed that it was a good idea. Now, the Saxes are all in.
“We all put our money together, we mortgaged our house,” Peggy Sax said.
According to Jordan Sax, he asked them to do so because the interest rate on a loan is far lower when a house is used as collateral.
“I’m always hesitant to do that because I don’t want to put anything at risk that has to do with (my parents’) retirement,” he said. “We talked about it, and they were enthusiastic about it. My brother, who lives in Portland, (Ore.) was enthusiastic about it … everyone was on board.”
His mother, a psychologist with a practice in Addison County, said she now uses her custom earpieces all the time.
“When I go to spinning class, and I find the music very loud. I put them in my ears and it’s perfect. I can still hear, but that really loud noise is drowned out,” Peggy said. “I tried experimenting at other places. I find some restaurants so loud now in the background. And if you wear them there, or at a hockey game, it really blocks the (noise) out.”
With the product specifications worked out, Murmur is focused now on using the 3-D scanners to take the measure of potential customers’ ears and selling the product. They held ear scanning events at two California gun ranges recently.
When Jordan Sax is in town this weekend he and Shel will be welcoming anyone to come to Middlebury Fitness for free, five-minute ear scans on Saturday and Sunday, June 24 and 25. They will be at the Wilson Road workout facility from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.
Brother Peter Sax, also a Middlebury College graduate, is learning how to operate the scanners and will begin using one at scanning sessions in Oregon. Jordan Sax said another friend will soon be operating a machine in Seattle, and that another individual may soon be working in San Diego.
In the Bay Area, Sax is working to hire full-time scanners. Currently, the business operates by driving to various venues where a high number of individuals may be interested in their products. He said Murmur has had success going to places like factories, gun shows, and NASCAR events.
Only a year in, Sax said his company is still trying to figure out which markets will most likely use the product and yield the highest return.
“Going to places where we think there’s going to be a concentrate of interested parties,” he said, “that’s the strategy.”
More information is online at earmurmur.com.

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