Meet James M. Harte, new Senior Director of Eriksholm Research Centre.

2020 has been an extraordinary year both for Eriksholm and for James M. Harte, who became Senior Director only a few weeks before the national lockdown in Denmark due to COVID-19. In this interview he talks about his background, what led him to join Eriksholm, and his aspirations for the research center.


Interview with new Senior Director of Eriksholm, James M. Harte

James, you have been Senior Director at Eriksholm Research Centre since January 1st, 2020. What is your professional background?

My journey into hearing science began with my PhD, obtained from the University of Southampton in the UK, where we tried to understand a little better how the complex structures and processes of the inner ear (cochlea) impact our sense of hearing. As part of my PhD, I was lucky enough to be involved in an exchange program that brought me to the Technical University of Denmark in 2004. The timing was perfect as a new research center has just been established, led by a young German professor, Torsten Dau, who was looking for junior faculty members. I ended up working for 6 years with Torsten as an assistant and then associate professor in physiological acoustics and technical audiology. During this time, I also had the good fortune to meet and collaborate with Claus Elberling – previous director of Eriksholm Research Centre and senior scientist specializing in evoked responses. 

After a brief period working back in the UK, at the Institute of Digital Healthcare, University of Warwick, I was approached by Claus Elberling who asked me to return to DK to help establish a new industrial research group for the diagnostic company Interacoustics. This was simply too exciting an opportunity for me to refuse. So in 2013, I began leading the Interacoustics Research Unit (IRU), where I was able to continue research at the Technical University of Denmark where we were located, but as a part of a world leading diagnostics company with a focus on ensuring new product lines contained the cutting edge of diagnostic audiology.

What let you to join Eriksholm Research Center?

During the 6.5 years at IRU, I worked of course hand in hand with Interacoustics as well as the broader Demant family of companies including Oticon, Oticon Medical and Eriksholm. I was involved in the Eriksholm scientific advisory board, where we were tasked with providing feedback about emerging research trends relevant for the hearing healthcare industry. 

Over the years, my interests have grown also more into leading scientific teams and looking at how relatively independent industrial research groups such as Eriksholm best bridge the worlds of academia/healthcare to a globally leading hearing health company. Eriksholm Research Centre has essentially two roles, one is externally facing to universities and hospitals / clinics where we interact via our science. The second is internally facing, where we help to translate the more basic research findings to innovation and new technologies that can be developed by the company into the product line. Taking an idea from research to successful innovation in a commercial product is often a complex and difficult journey, with many good ideas failing to make it. Therefore, I find this interface between academia and Demant to be an exceptionally rewarding and interesting space to work in.

In January 2020, an opportunity arose to lead Eriksholm in addition to IRU. This seemed a very natural progression for me for the reasons described above, as well as a truly exciting opportunity to work with some fantastic world leading scientists and colleagues.


We all know that 2020 didn’t turn out as we expected – what has been the biggest challenge, leading a research facility during a period with COVID-19, and what do you take away from this?

I only joined Eriksholm a few weeks before the national lockdown in Denmark due to Covid-19. Additionally, we had very recently introduced a number of organizational and operational changes to our large and diverse team. Therefore, I was probably most concerned about team cohesion and good communication about our mission, and how we could facilitate progress on our projects. Luckily, we have an experienced and extremely engaged team who are very ‘techie’, so the adaptation to working remotely and using digital collaboration tools was extremely smooth. It became very clear to me in this period that there is a very strong sense of personal alignment from all the team with the mission of Eriksholm, to empower and improve the quality of life for those with a hearing loss. In my opinion, this sense of meaning in the work we do most definitely helped us through this period.

You have reorganized Eriksholm by introducing a One Team philosophy, could you elaborate a bit on that?

Traditional organizational structures, as used in most companies are quite rigid and place people into smaller teams to promote a higher degree of specialization. I.e. do one thing or one approach really well. This is good in many contexts, but our aims in Eriksholm are to create a cross-disciplinary scientific environment that fosters the sharing of ideas and poses no barriers to collaboration. Even in academia it is common for researchers in the same department and building but in different research groups to be completely unaware of what their colleagues are doing. There is potential in this to miss key opportunities for exciting and really unique research to develop. Therefore, we have adopted a circular organizational structure with concentric rings representing broad function rather than specialization. We then form project groups within and across our research focus areas and push down the decision making within these projects to the individual employees. The purpose is to empower the team to try new things and release the potential of every single employee.


Which three focus areas are currently explored at Eriksholm?

We seek to understand better how people with normal hearing can give priority to any sound source they wish to listen to, merely by directing their attention with their brain. This is something we can seemingly easily do, and it is crucial for our abilities to communicate effortlessly even in challenging acoustic environments. People with hearing impairment using hearing devices do not have this option or at least it is often severely negatively impacted. So, we have a need to understand how our execution of attention works and turn those insights into benefits for future generation of hearing aids to help the hearing impaired. 

We also seek to gain new insight into the areas of cognition and effort by measuring the responses from the autonomous nervous system and the brain that can indicate use of more or less effort. We can use physiological measures such as brain activity (EEG), heart activity, pupillometry, perspiration, body movements and even stress in the speaker’s voice to decode how effortful or stressful a given communication scenario is. We are exploring what factors affect how people with and without hearing impairment respond to different challenging communication situations. The ultimate goal of course is to provide eventual support and increase the level of engagement a hearing-impaired person can experience in their daily lives.

Finally, we seek to really personalize future hearing technology for the individual. To do this we need to measure individual hearing at the peripheral level and to discover new insights into the functionality of the brain. We seek to find ‘what goes wrong’ for a given individual and develop new measures of hearing function. Another important way to personalize performance in hearing technology is to identify new insights on coping strategies by actively exploring the audiological fitting space. We will utilize new opportunities arising as hearing devices become increasingly connected to expand the research lab to real world.


Which aspirations do you have for Eriksholm?

Eriksholm has made significant contributions to hearing science and has positively impacted the lives of people with hearing impairment for more than 40 years. I want to see the scientific legacy live on and to really grow and help shape the future of hearing healthcare. We are a scientific institute, and we are also a part of Oticon, which I believe provides us with unique insight and opportunities to address the challenges faced by people with a hearing loss. In the private sector, our set-up is quite unique. We are kept separate from the immediate day to day concerns of product development and release cycles, and we are allowed to take the long view and a deep dive scientific approach in partnership with academia and hearing care professionals. 

Powerful ideas for transformative innovation arise when talented people make new connections and share knowledge between other talented people, and they move both physically and intellectually between academia, healthcare and industry, To me, this is exactly the interface that Eriksholm can play. A sign of a successful Eriksholm is to be known in the hearing healthcare world as a place where collaboration occurs between scientifically astute and curious people, driven by a meaningful mission and given the freedom to work on impactful challenges.


What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

Work is clearly not everything in life and for around 20 years now I have been a keen rock climber and occasional mountaineer, having always been drawn to the outdoors as well as high places. For the astute reader, you might quite rightly question my choice of living in Denmark – the second flattest country in Europe – however, I just view this as an opportunity to enjoy my other passion of travelling and visiting new countries.