Ottawa firm's 'boothless' hearing tests making noise in pandemic market

Mitch Robinson
Mitch Robinson is the CEO of Shoebox, a health-tech firm formerly known as Clearwater Clinical. Photo courtesy Shoebox

An Ottawa company says demand for its “boothless” hearing tests has surged during the pandemic as health-care professionals and industrial customers seek alternatives to office-based testing methods.

Health-tech firm Shoebox has carved out a growing market niche for itself with its iPad-based audiometer that acts as a substitute for traditional tests conducted at professional hearing clinics. 

Shoebox’s portable cloud-based solutions allow patients to take tests virtually anywhere, meaning they can avoid long waits for appointments and don’t waste time travelling to clinics. The company recently unveiled an online platform so tests can be performed remotely ​– a selling point that resonates even more during the COVID-19 crisis. 

New CEO Mitch Robinson, who took the reins from tech industry veteran Mike Weider last summer, says while the firm’s revenues dipped a bit at the outset of the pandemic, Shoebox started making noise as the prospect of visiting physical clinics and sitting in busy waiting rooms became less palatable.

“It actually ended up flipping around and almost being a bit of an accelerant for us,” he says.

Serving remote areas

The firm currently targets two major customer segments. 

Shoebox sells to health-care providers themselves, particularly physicians and hospitals operating in remote areas such as the far north where specialized testing equipment and booths are unavailable.

The other half of its business comes from companies in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and air travel, where excessive noise can lead to hearing loss. 

In these fields, federal regulations say employers must test workers on an annual basis to establish baselines and regular updates for hearing health. Shoebox’s customers include household names such as Delta Air Lines, Siemens and bourbon distillery Maker’s Mark.

Robinson, who has held senior roles at Cognos, IBM and cybersecurity firm Titus in his 25-year career, says Shoebox’s competitors often require patients to line up for testing booths in tractor-trailers that travel from one location to the next.

“In COVID-19, nobody’s really keen to make their employees do that,” he explains. 

Acquired by global player

Formerly known as Clearwater Clinical, the company was founded back in 2005 by Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario surgeon Matthew Bromwich. 

In late 2018, the firm was acquired by Sivantos Group, a major global player in hearing technology that was spun out of Siemens three years earlier. Sivantos merged with fellow hearing tech firm Widex the following year to form WS Audiology.

Shoebox remains a standalone operation under the WS umbrella. The company, which rebranded to take the name of its signature product a few years ago, now has more than 90 employees and expects its headcount to exceed 100 by the fall as it pushes into new markets.

After growing its revenues by 40 per cent in 2020, Shoebox is setting its sights on building its customer base in 2021. The firm just released the latest generation of its iPad-based product, dubbed PureTest, and Robinson says Shoebox is now looking to expand its network of sales channels through partnerships with other health-technology providers. 

"All of a sudden, mobile health-care capabilities (have) come to the forefront."

“I think that's what’s going to give us a leg up and take us to that level from a growth perspective,” he adds.

As Shoebox gains momentum, Robinson predicts you’ll be hearing a lot more from the company in the years to come. 

“All of a sudden, mobile health-care capabilities (have) come to the forefront,” he says.

Like virtually all tech firms in the capital right now, Shoebox is grappling with the issue of growing its workforce remotely during a pandemic. 

Not only is finding qualified people a tall order in Ottawa’s tight talent market, Robinson says there’s also the question of determining whether new hires are really the right fit. It’s a tougher task, he says, when they don’t get a chance to interact face-to-face with their co-workers. 

“The challenge is how do you preserve that culture when everybody's working remotely?” Robinson says. “I’m a big believer in teamwork. It doesn't matter where we’re located ​– it’s how we work as a team.”