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Rewriting Life

An Entrepreneur's Unfinished Project

Norman Priebatsch, who disappeared on Sunday while hiking, had recently founded a company working on a novel solution for tinnitus.

Norman Priebatsch, who fell into a crevasse while hiking in New Hampshire last weekend and is presumed dead at 67, was known for founding or heading several biotech companies and for passing on the entrepreneurship bug to his 23-year-old son, Seth Priebatsch, founder of the mobile-application company Scvngr. But the elder Priebatsch’s legacy in technology is ongoing.

In 2011, Priebatsch cofounded a medical software company called Tinnix, which aims to treat tinnitus, a condition that causes sufferers to hear ringing or other phantom noises. Although the cause is still not clear, most cases are associated with hearing loss due to noise exposure or aging. One hypothesis suggests that the brain may overcompensate for damage to the cells in the ear that detect sound waves by amplifying any signal in the corresponding neural pathway. Some cases have also been associated with brain tumors, excessive amounts of earwax, and abnormal ear bones.

No matter its cause, tinnitus can be annoying and even debilitating. Most available therapies merely allay symptoms and do not have a lasting effect, says Ricardo Garcia, a software engineer for Tinnix. Patients listen to white noise or tones that distract them from the noise of tinnitus.

Tinnix—which was cofounded by a tinnitus sufferer, Peter Suzman, a longtime colleague of Priebatsch’s—hopes to do something different. “We want to have the brain rewire,” says Garcia. “The idea is to diminish the perception of the tinnitus in the long run, even when you are not using the treatment.” Tinnix is working on a smart-phone app that uses musical therapy to treat the phantom noises. The software filters out a band of frequencies around the tone heard by a tinnitus sufferer in the hope that the auditory cortex, which perceives sound, will reorganize. Researchers in Germany have suggested that the technique could help. (The effect of the filtering isn’t extremely obvious. Listen to a clip of music before and after processing by the German researchers).

The Tinnix app will let tinnitus sufferers identify which frequencies are causing the phantom sounds. “One of the things we are trying to do with the application is have a very accurate self-diagnosis tool that people can, following some steps, determine the characteristics of their tinnitus,” says Garcia. The company plans to make the app available for a low cost. First, though, Tinnix is planning a controlled clinical trial to test whether its app can help mute the annoying ringing that plagues tinnitus patients.

Garcia says Tinnix’s four employees were devastated by Priebatsch’s accident. “He was a great mentor, in all senses of the word,” says Garcia. “His leadership and vision will be greatly missed.”

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