Strategy and businesses
Cochlear Implants business
A cochlear implant is a life-long solution for significant or complete hearing loss. Unlike hearing aids which amplify sound, cochlear implants electrically stimulate the hearing nerve, bypassing the damaged part of the ear; a wearable processor captures sound and converts it into an electrical signal which is transmitted to the implant.
Advanced Bionics has a presence in 85 countries and employs more than 900 people across the business in R&D, manufacturing and distribution, and also in the many roles that support consumers throughout their hearing journey. Choosing a cochlear implant is a major life decision, so we work closely with potential recipients and their families, with audiologists, with surgeons and clinics, explaining what our technology can offer, listening to their hopes and concerns, providing support, and planning further innovation.
As with all of Sonova’s work, our goal at Advanced Bionics is to provide the best possible hearing performance and consumer experience, and we benefit from in-depth collaboration with the other businesses. Phonak technology lets us offer the sophisticated sound processing and connectivity that sets Sonova’s hearing aids apart. The Audiological Care network of stores and clinics, along with the Hearing Instruments wholesale business, let us establish relationships with consumers at the point of need, when their hearing loss has advanced beyond the point where hearing aids can address the loss. And because the cochlear implant processor incorporates the same sound processing as our Phonak hearing aids, these consumers do not have to re-learn the “sound of sound.” This joined-up approach means that no-one with severe to profound hearing loss needs to miss out. Consumers and audiologists know that Sonova is there for the whole journey.
Our prime concerns at Advanced Bionics are the safety and hearing experience of our recipients, and the reliability of our products. It is in this spirit that we retrieved from the market in February 2020 the un-implanted initial version of our HiRes™ Ultra and Ultra 3D cochlear implants. The vast majority of these devices function correctly, but we took this step in an abundance of caution, having observed an increase in reports of reduced hearing performance. Most importantly, there have been zero reported safety events relative to this issue with these devices. The initial version of the HiRes™ Ultra 3D implant has been superseded by a new version, which includes several improvements to support consistently good hearing performance.
Key areas of activity
The launch last year of Advanced Bionics’ HiRes™ Ultra 3D implant addressed a key issue with cochlear implants: what to do when getting an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. These scans are increasingly required for health reasons, but they can cause pain and anxiety for people with cochlear implants because their strong magnetic fields exert force on the magnet in the implant. Before last year, the choice for most cochlear implant recipients was complex head positioning and bandaging in place to try to minimize the misalignment of the magnet, or even surgically removing the magnet before the scan, depriving the patient of hearing for a time. With HiRes™ Ultra 3D, the magnet array is free to rotate in three dimensions and self-align with the scanner’s field, preventing any discomfort. This has been a key factor for recipients and their surgeons in the choice of implant, and will be even more so in the future, as there is increasing scrutiny surrounding claims of MRI compatibility by the US Food and Drug Administration. Advanced Bionics is well placed to meet the requirements of more stringent definitions of this claim.
HiRes™ Ultra 3D implant
In July 2019, Advanced Bionics launched a first in its field: AIM™ (Active Insertion Monitoring), a tablet-based solution that monitors the electrical signals produced by the cochlea in response to acoustic stimuli during implant surgery. It provides surgeons with invaluable insight into how their electrode insertion technique could affect the fine structures within the cochlea, much in the same way that proximity sensors allow us to park a car in a tight space without scratching the paint. Our hope is that less cochlear damage during surgery will correlate to better hearing performance. AIM is objective enough to provide reliable insight, convenient enough to be used in the operating room, and responsive enough to allow reaction in real time without compromising the pace of surgery. Moreover, AIM’s speed and objectivity promise to give audiologists a quick and reliable way to gather cochlear implant performance data in a shop environment, bridging the information gap between the retail hearing aid provider and the cochlear implant clinic.
AIM™ (Active Insertion Monitoring) tablet
The ten years since Advanced Bionics joined Sonova have combined a drive for innovation with a push to expand sales and geographical coverage. We have greatly increased our investment in clinical trials and research, reinforcing our reputation with key opinion leaders in all major geographical regions. We maintain a strong online presence to connect with current and potential recipients through information, advice, support groups and online communities – particularly important in times like the current COVID-19 pandemic, when recipients can feel isolated from the formal healthcare system.
As part of our collaboration with Phonak in establishing a “continuum of hearing care” for people with significant to complete hearing loss, we are working closely with the Audiological Care business and hearing aid retailers to identify potential candidates for cochlear implants. We follow up these leads through a dedicated consumer outreach salesforce, established this year in the US, which we intend to expand in additional markets. Our increased investment in the sales force follows the principles of commercial excellence, supporting our innovative products with a targeted approach that focuses, with the right messages, on high-potential partners, clinics, and markets.
Like Sonova’s other businesses, Advanced Bionics is committed to continuous improvement: in manufacturing efficiency, in sales effectiveness, and in profitability.
We have implemented daily management in our production sites and conduct intensive collaborative problem-solving sessions to identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies. One such session in our processor assembly unit led to a labor productivity improvement of over 40%, with a reduction of more than 30% in inventory held in the work cell. A similar exercise with colleagues from Audiological Care helped to establish a strong lead-generation framework for major European markets and defined the actions to extend this to other high-potential territories.
Continuous improvement raises profitability from both directions, reducing the cost of goods without compromising quality and raising average selling price through targeted sales and marketing. The increased revenue gives us the flexibility to invest further in R&D and commercial excellence, thus accelerating the virtuous cycle.