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Why I Co-Founded Oto, a Tinnitus Therapy App

For some people, sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) is accompanied by a sudden ringing in the ears or head, known as tinnitus.

Here George Leidig talks about how his own experience of tinnitus led to him becoming a co-founder of a startup called Oto. Oto is a mobile app that allows instant access to evidence-based treatment for people with tinnitus.

George’s Tinnitus Story

I remember first experiencing tinnitus after a school disco when I was about 8 or 9. I can still recall my mum explaining in simple terms that it was because of the loud music, that it indicated I had damaged my ears, and if I wasn’t careful then that damage could become permanent.

The next morning the ringing was gone and, as with the rest of the great advice handed down from my parents, I ignored everything she said and continued to damage my ears through long periods of listening to music too loudly during my paper round. Over the years, I became more and more familiar with the uncomfortable ringing after a busy shift in a bar or night out but, up until 2013, would always find that the sound had disappeared by the next morning.

When the Ringing Became Permanent

The shift from temporary to permanent tinnitus occurred during a night out with friends at a club in Birmingham. I was stood next to a huge floor speaker. The whole thing was rattling with the power of the sound being emitted. I was right up close, and when I think back, I can sometimes remember feeling the discomfort in my near-side ear.

Unfortunately, I was drunk, and couldn’t have cared less about what was clearly a stupid place to be standing. I woke up the next day and the tinnitus was still there.

I often wonder how that club continues to pump out that level of noise, straight into the ears of other young people, without being taken to task. Were other students damaged in the same way? Is it their responsibility or ours to protect our hearing? Regardless, the damage had been done and I was going to have to deal with it.

At the time, I was applying to the military. Entry standards for the initial medical are very strict, and any sign of hearing damage would normally exclude someone from entry. I thought it was going to be the end of my application to join the military and this made me miserable. Not only would I have to live with tinnitus for the rest of my life, but I thought it was going to cripple my dream career before it had even begun. Thankfully, my hearing remained intact, and I managed to get through the initial medical.

The Journey to Habituation

It took me a long time to habituate. Looking back, I can easily see the daily spiral of emotions as I woke up each day to the dreaded realisation that my tinnitus was still there. I would despair, panic and stress. The impact of the tinnitus became worse as I thought about it more and more. Was it going to get worse? What if it completely eclipsed everything else I could hear?

My career continued. I became part of a Royal Navy unit and started to work with young men and women who had been exposed to loud helicopter engines and weapons. Some of them had tinnitus too. I was still learning to manage my own tinnitus and shared the frustration my patients had at the lack of help. As a primary care (family medicine) centre, we referred them to an ENT specialist if needed. Otherwise, I felt powerless to help.

Co-Founding Oto – A Tinnitus Therapy App

Three screenshots of the Oto app: welcome screen, visualisation techniques, and nature sounds.

I have always wanted to start a small business and in August this year I quit my job to start Oto. I have spent the last 6 months learning to code and have put together a small team to create an app – Oto – that delivers psychological therapy that might help people adjust to living with tinnitus. The general idea is based off my own experience – most of us will habituate, but it takes varying amounts of time and effort. Oto is designed to make this process as easy and as fast as possible.

My co-founder, Ed, does an amazing job running the business side of things whilst I work on making the app. We still work agency shifts at the evenings and weekends to keep the bills at bay, but it’s been great fun so far and we’d love for this to be successful enough to work on without having a second job.

There is no cure for tinnitus, and we don’t make any promises to the contrary. For most of us (including me), tinnitus is here to stay. It took me a long time to adjust to this fact but, although I still hear it throughout the day, it no longer upsets me like it used to. I live a normal life, as happy and as sad as the next person, and I hope that Oto can help the millions of other people out there struggling to cope.

Try Oto today

Oto is available to download now on iOS and Android. Sign up to a free trial today and start your journey to a life beyond tinnitus.