Dr Felix Schaeffler

Dr Felix Schaeffler, a Lecturer in Speech and Hearing Sciences and a member of the Clinical Audiology, Speech and Language Centre, is the recipient of three QMU Innovation Fellowships.  In 2018/19 he was awarded an Innovation Fellowship for The Voice Distillery – voice quality tagging for the creative industries. In 2020/21, following a successful application for Scottish Enterprise SMART: Scotland grant to conduct a feasibility study, Dr Schaeffler was awarded another Innovation Fellowship to support this project. In addition, he was awarded an Innovation Fellowship entitled Remote clinical recordings in the context of COVID-19 and beyond.

Remote clinical recordings in the context of COVID-19 and beyond.

The COVID19 pandemic has led to a major crisis in health systems worldwide. Beyond other things, fairly routine procedures can currently not be performed - or are much more difficult to perform - due to infection risk.

In the context of voice assessment, this applies to a range of face-to-face assessments, but also to laryngoscopy (endoscopy of the larynx), usually the gold standard of clinical voice assessment prior to any voice intervention. While acoustic voice recordings cannot replace laryngoscopy, they have the potential to support voice assessment and therapy if other means of assessment are not available.

Fitvoice is an established mobile and web app developed by Dr Felix Schaeffler and colleagues that provides secure longitudinal voice quality tracking through mobile phones with authentication-managed access to recordings and derived parameters. Fitvoice currently focusses on improved voice care for high risk professions in respect of voice disorder. It has also been used in a research project, Speech features in clinical depression, that has been granted NHS ethical approval.

Dr Felix Schaeffler has been awarded a QMU Innovation Fellowship to explore the potential of Fitvoice CIC to provide voice health data services. Key elements of the Fellowship include a pilot feasibility study to understand constraints and requirements for Fitvoice use in clinical practice during COVID-19 restrictions and beyond, and a survey of Scottish voice clinics and therapists with respect to current barriers to clinical practice and the potential of remote voice recordings to overcome these.

The Voice Distillery - Voice Tagging for the Creative Industries

The human voice shows an extraordinary amount of meaningful variability and an individual’s voice quality and timbre causes a range of reactions including personality attributions. The underlying characteristics and specific use of a voice for a certain purpose can trigger a variety of responses in a listener, and the importance of voice choice, for example in commercials, has long been recognised.

Vocal Profile Analysis’ (VPA) is a phonetically motivated perceptual voice analysis scheme developed and refined by researchers from Edinburgh University and QMU since the 1980’s. VPA is the most comprehensive system for voice quality description to date. 

SMART: Scotland funding will enable Dr Schaeffler and his colleagues to explore the potential uses of VPA for the creative industries, focusing on automatic VPA and voice quality tagging for voice sample evaluation. The innovative technology developed throughout the study has potential to contribute to both high-impact scientific publications (once IP protection is secured) as well as the establishment of a sustainable business.

"The Fellowship award allowed for the time and resources to submit a Scottish Enterprise SMART: Scotland Feasibility Study Application for a novel research-intensive business idea, based on previous discussions with the on-campus East Lothian Business Gateway team and business consultancy firm Planys."

Funding streams like SMART: Scotland require consideration of both technological and commercial aspects of a project, and the fellowship funded consultation of external experts and helped shape the application outside Dr Schaeffler's area of expertise.

SMART: Scotland also requires match funding from other sources. The Fellowship meant that he was able to gather a team of experts and discuss the business idea and its potential. "Subsequently we successfully raised private investment. The Fellowship also led me to initiate contacts with VC investors/business angels and financial experts, as a first step towards funding the company beyond the feasibility study."

The SMART:Scotland application was successful and Felix Schaeffler and The Voice Distillery have been granted funding to undertake a feasibility study. Subsequently they were awarded a further QMU Innovation Fellowship to support this project.