Our Entrepreneurs: Nick Gompertz

Meet #OurEntrepreneurs. Introducing Nick Gompertz a GP from Somerset.

Tell us a bit about yourself 

I have been a NHS doctor for 30 years, and GP for 21 years (19 as a GP partner) at Bruton Surgery in Somerset. Over the last 4 years I have been developing The EarSwitch in my spare time and incorporated the company in Dec 2019. However, I realised in 2021, after gaining the first National Institute for Research i4i grant, that I needed more time for EarSwitch Ltd and gradually reduced my GP sessions.

Name: Nick Gompertz, NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Cohort 6

Occupation: GP

I have been working 1 session a week with the Somerset Training Hub; trying to improve primary care by promoting a culture of innovation management; scoping/ identifying and scaling grass roots innovations across the NHS.

Why did you apply to the programme and what are you looking forward to? 

I had applied for a similar programme with the RCGP 4 years ago, but wasn’t confident that my very new invention was mature enough for the programme, and so applied with a rather nebulous innovation platform idea and didn’t get selected. Four years on, with proven concept, traction and grant funding, I felt it was a great time to tap into the networking benefits and advice of CEP.

I now understand the saying about “finding your tribe”. The programme attracts people who are of similar mind set; restless thinkers who are constantly trying to find a new or better way to do something. Everyone seems to be driven by having a positive impact, rather than simply to start a business. It also attracts people from a wide range of experience and professions who can help each other with mutual advice, networking and support.

I look forward to the camaraderie and also the advice and inevitable opportunities that the networking and mentoring will provide.

Tell us about your innovation  

The EarSwitch is a new way for people in the same situation as the late Professor Stephen Hawking, to communicate more easily and longer. This will provide communication options despite worsening or severe neuro-disabilities (such as MND/ALS, locked-in-syndrome due to brainstem stroke, and severe cerebral palsy).

The EarSwitch is an earphone with sensors that detect voluntary control of a muscle in the middle ear that moves the ear-drum. The sensor detects the ear-drum movement, and acts as a switch, just as Prof Hawking controlled an on-screen “scanning” keyboard with a switch on his glasses, The EarSwitch can be used to type on a keyboard, control augmented reality headset, control assistive robots and provide a faster interface for eye-tracking. We have demonstrated all these benefits just from an earphone in your ear.

The idea was born 30 years ago as a medical student witnessing people with MND losing their ability to communicate and wondering if there was a way to connect the ear-muscle control to a communication device.

Over 25 years later I was inspired to try again, watching a children’s TV documentary with my family, about an amazing 13-year-old boy with severe cerebral palsy who had written a book with his eyes, just by looking at letters stuck to a board. He was non -verbal and his mother and carer wrote down his letters one at a time. I felt that there had to be a better way…. and by then you could buy digital otoscopes that plugged into your PC…. so I had one delivered the next day.

When I looked in my ear I saw that when I contracted this muscle my eardrum moved. Within 6 months I had proven that we could type on a keyboard with just our ears.

Communication is one of the most important of human needs. To have MND, and not be able to communicate with your loved ones, and not be able to determine one’s own care decisions is hard to imagine. If we can improve this, and also give a voice to some people who have never had eg with cerebral palsy, then we have addressed a massive need for a small number of very disadvantaged individuals.

What motivates you? 

The whole reason to start this journey, was to help one person communicate. If I manage to do that then the journey has been worthwhile. However, in those first few months I realised that I had stumbled across an interface that would be useful for all; handsfree control of your phone/ head cam …. and in fact any electronic device.

Although commercial success would clearly be good for me, the “virtuous circle” described by a colleague, was that licensing this to the big tech smart earphone manufacturers would mean that people with assistive communication and living needs would have assistive tech incorporated in their next smart earphone; gaining from the technical expertise and miniaturising of a big tech company, and without the price of bespoke assistive tech devices that are produced in low volume.

I now have the bug for innovation; with multiple spin out applications (and patents granted and pending) including for biometrics and more sophisticated control from earphones…. and also the bug for business and entrepreneurship.

I also wish to continue to help my colleagues in general practice by helping spread grass roots innovations, that help day to day workload and patient care, that currently are not shared as people are too busy to be intrapreneurs.

How can we find out more?

To find out more connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter or visit the website www.earswitch.co.uk


Published by Lucy Dentice

Deputy Programme Manager for the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme.