Among companies producing technology to help people with profound hearing loss hear, Sydney-based Cochlear Ltd. has an almost Microsoft-like dominance. Last year I wrote a BW story about the Australian company, which is far and away the No. 1 producer of cochlear implants. And its 70% market share is now going to get even bigger, thanks to the news that its main rival, Advanced Bionics (owned by Boston Scientific) has had to issue yet another recall. This isn’t just a one-time problem for the American company, and not surprisingly Cochlear’s stock, which has been one of the hottest Aussie stocks around, soared today in Sydney following the news.
With Advanced Bionics stumbling and Austrian rival Med-El not much of a threat, Cochlear CEO Chris Roberts is looking ahead to new techologies. Can any company stop Cochlear from dominating what is likely to be a lucrative market, as Baby Boomers age and the number of people suffering from hearing loss increases? One scenario that analysts point to is that scientists in a low-cost Asian country will figure out how to make cochlear implants and produce them cheaply. (An implant from Cochlear today easily costs tens of thousands of dollars.)
One possibility is India. When I was writing my story on Cochlear last year, my colleague in Bombay, Manjeet Kripalani, contacted the Indian Society of Otology to get a progress report. Dr. Ravi Ramalingam, treasurer of the group, got back in touch, but only after my deadline had passed and the article was in print. According to Dr. Ramalingam’s email, Indian President APJ Abdul Khalam “has always been very interested in the field of deafness and cochlear implants.” With the President urging them along, a team of Indian researchers “is currently well in the process of developing the Indian Cochlear Implant” and “the Indian Society of Otology is also keenly working…to pursue this matter with the utmost importance.” According to Dr. Ramalingam, they are hoping to launch this home-grown implant next year. Low-cost implants could transform the lives of millions of deaf children and adults in the developing world. But making cochlear implants is incredibly difficult, as the latest setback at Advanced Bionics shows. For now, Cochlear Ltd. rules.