Sound Band Saga Continues After Redesign; Hybra Founder Not Worried

[Corrected on 4/25/16, 1:58 pm. See below.] In December, the calls and e-mails from concerned Sound Band backers started coming in once again.

“Please, please do an update on Hybra,” read one e-mail, whose author asked to remain anonymous. “267 backers now formally want a refund. Considering that most people probably forgot about the project by now, it’s an amazing number … Kickstarter is not a store and so on, but Creators have responsibilities too, including keeping the backers updated on what is going on and how the money is used.”

The list of Kickstarter backers now requesting a refund has grown to 282, and there seems to be no convincing some of them that Hybra Advance Technology, the Michigan company that launched a Kickstarter campaign in September 2013 to get its speakerless Bluetooth headphones to market, is not engaged in outright fraud.

Hybra initially popped up in the media in 2010, after an early prototype of Sound Band won a prestigious design and engineering award at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. In a September 2013 article, Hybra co-founder Ryan Wells, who is no longer with the company, told Xconomy that recognition at CES opened the doors to some key relationships that allowed the product to get closer to market.

After a few design iterations, Hybra set out to raise $175,000 on Kickstarter to help pay for final manufacturing costs. The Sound Band headset is crescent-shaped and fits around the back of the ear. It has flat panels that vibrate very quickly so that, when placed against the back of the ear, the vibrations bypass the outer ear and are conducted directly through the bone.

The initial response from Kickstarter backers was enthusiastic: When Hybra’s campaign ended on Sep. 13, 2013, 3,292 backers had pledged $547,125 toward commercializing Sound Band. Hybra told its backers the estimated date of delivery for Sound Band would be December 2013, with other rewards promised as early as October 2013. As part of its Kickstarter pitch, Hybra had claimed that Sound Band was “production ready” and just needed $175,000 for manufacturing.

Those dates passed with no sign of the Sound Band, and Kickstarter backers began vocalizing their dismay in the comments section of the Kickstarter page. As more time passed and Hybra’s updates continued to be deemed unsatisfactory by some backers, all hell broke loose. The tipping point seemed to come after the company posted a Nov. 30 update, in which it suggested that some of the more aggressive backer-commenters could be sued for defamation: “It seems our comments section has been hijacked with false statements of facts and attempts at defaming Hybra and Hybra’s employees. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding of product development protocol, and the overall concept of Kickstarter. BTW, defamation is still illegal…even if it is done on the Internet. We are not stealing backer money, we are not misusing funds, we ARE a legit company working on Sound Band.”

The bad blood between disgruntled backers and Hybra continued. Xconomy spoke with Joe Thiel, Hybra’s co-founder and former CEO, about the situation last spring. (He’s now in an advisory role—more on that below.) Thiel and I met at TechTown in Detroit, and he demonstrated the Sound Band’s working prototype, which seemed to function as promised. I gave Thiel an opportunity to address concerns, and sincerely hoped I wouldn’t be writing about the situation again until the Sound Band was delivered to its Kickstarter backers. But then, the e-mails and calls began again.

In an attempt to figure out why some Sound Band backers were so convinced that Hybra was engaged in fraud as opposed to accepting the long, difficult, and typically trial-and-error-filled process of getting high-tech hardware to market, I arranged a Google meet-up with one of the most outspoken of the unsatisfied backers, a South African man named Roy Blumenthal. He’s a digital artist who works in a technical field as a visual facilitator, which means he makes “live, full-color illustrations of the concepts people talk about in conferences, meetings, and workshops.”

The Sound Band is not the first Kickstarter project Blumenthal has backed—he says he’s funded nearly 100 other projects in the past. In 2013, when some of the initial naysayers began expressing their displeasure in the Kickstarter comments, Blumenthal says he wanted to give Hybra the benefit of the doubt. But those magnanimous feelings dissipated after he learned company co-founders Ryan and Meagan Wells had left Hybra in early 2014, a move he considered to bode poorly for the Sound Band.

Blumenthal began poking around online to see what he could find out about Hybra. In … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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  • Nice piece, Sarah. But still cloaked in secrecy. And none of the redesign information was communicated to backers on the Kickstarter page. And Ryan Wells is still listed as a director on the company paperwork that can be found online. Ah well.

  • Anonymous Backer

    A very well written piece, but still very lacking. Joe claims to communicate with backers in private, but I’m sure that is yet another lie. Many have privately message Hybra with zero response. I myself have sent in numerous messages with nothing to show for it. As to how Joe is a “changed person”, I’ll believe that when I see something to show for my investment. We get spotty updates that sometimes take a month or two to show up (despite their promise of weekly updates). Add that to the fact that they do no engage any questions and you have a whirlwind of problems. Also the list of backers wanting a refund has never shrunk (except when one person wanted off the list for her own personal reasons) and has only continued growing due to hybras lack of communication and poor updates.

  • Observer

    There is much more to this story than what has been revealed, unfortunately, Joe can now hide behind the empire of Matty to keep from being held responsible for Hybra’s false claims during the campaign. Entrepreneural exuberance is complete BS, the entire Hybra team knew of the overmold problem from day one of choosing such a process. Being enamored with one’s self does not a product make and in this case caused failure…until proven otherwise.

    • Anonymous Backer

      This is exactly what I meant. In Joe’s own words, he admitted that they knew the problem well BEFORE the kickstarter campaign. He tried to claim that he was not involved, yet his name was added to each and every update post in the beginning. I wouldn’t call that “Entrepreneurial exuberance” as Joe has put it.

  • Ripped Off Shareholder

    I am one of the original investors/shareholders (before Kickstarter) and I have been continually kept out of the loop. No shareholders meetings in the last 3 years that I am aware of and no updates in the last 2 years either. I have requested to talk with CEO and majority investors and have been put off repeatedly. It has been over 9 months since Joe promised me “…he had my back and that someone would be contacting me shortly to discuss my investment.” NOT A WORD FROM ANYONE! I’m glad Joe is ” feeling blessed,” but I’m feeling taken. Not a happy camper and lost all trust in the smooth talking, Joe Thiel.

    • I would love to talk to you about your experience. Can you email me? sschmid at xconomy.com

  • PascalForget

    So many answers in that story. The Creator should have posted them in Updates for the benefit of his backers. How come it’s so hard for Joe Thiel to take a few minutes to communicate regularly simple, basic answers (when, why, how, what is happening…) to the Sound Band backers?

  • Betterclassofcriminal

    I still want my refund.

  • Josh Goldberg

    still haven’t seen a product or gotten an update since August 17th on this phantom product!!!

  • Ombudsman

    It’s now December and still nothing tangible from Joe, Bob or Hybra.
    I sat quietly for a long time hoping against all odds that they would deliver, but its time to admit we are never going to get this – or worse that we will….

  • Disgruntled user

    So lets be honest. A) It’s been 3 years, B) if you go to there site, the image they have, a 2 year old could make using paint, and used the same photo they used for advertising so long ago as the background. C) No further updates have been posted D) The comment he said “As long as we don’t feel” – well I could say “Oh i got this here kickstarter project to make a banana milkshake” and not give anyone anything as long as I say “I feel like it’s not going to fail” Is what I’m taking from it. So, in all honesty. They should be sued for fraud, even though they claim that they aren’t. It’s 3 years of fraud, updates are lacking in so much, despite however long they be, because of the fact that it doesn’t tell us anything about when we’re getting our product THAT was suppose to be given to us 3 years ago. So, please do another follow up! It would be great to know how these greedy bastards are doing.