By David H. Kirkwood
ARDEN HILLS, MN—Hearing care providers are familiar with the world’s “Big Six” hearing aid manufacturers, or at least their flagship brands. That’s only natural, as together Sonova, William Demant, GN Store Nord, Siemens, Starkey, and Widex account for over 90% of the devices sold in the U.S. and Western Europe. However, while their names are much less known, numerous smaller hearing aid makers are out there vying for their share of the rest of the pie.
One of the fastest growing of these, IntriCon Corporation, announced on December 4 that, through an exclusive partnership with PC Werth Ltd., it will become one of the main suppliers to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), the world largest purchaser of hearing aids. The NHS provides about 1.2 million hearing aids a year to people in the United Kingdom.
Like all hearing aid manufacturers, IntriCon keeps its sales figures confidential, so it’s not clear what portion of the total NHS market its hearing aids, sold under the brand name Kamplex, will represent. It’s unlikely to be nearly as large as the shares held by Siemens, long the NHS’s primary supplier, or by some of the other Big Six companies. Still, the deal clearly enhances IntriCon’s reputation as an up and coming player in the hearing aid business.
AN OLD COMPANY TAKES A NEW ROLE
Actually, by high-tech standards, IntriCon is far from new. It was co-founded in 1977 by Mark Gorder as Resistance Technology, Inc. (RTI), and for most of its history, the Twin Cities-based business made hearing aid components such as volume controls and circuits.
In 1993, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Selas Corp., which also made heating equipment. After Gorder was appointed president and CEO, Selas began a restructuring that culminated in the sale of the heating portion of the business in 2005 and the renaming of the company as Intricon. The company re-invented itself as a designer and manufacturer of body-worn devices for hearing health, medical, and professional applications. Many of these hearing aids were made for other companies that sold them under their own brand name.
IntriCon’s hearing aids drew attention in 2011 when UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer by revenue, announced that its new subsidiary, HealthInnovations (HI), would begin selling hearing aids directly to consumers for as little as $650. The exclusive supplier was IntriCon.
HI’s marketing strategy, which largely bypassed the audiologist/hearing aid dispenser, stirred up enormous controversy within the hearing aid industry and also drew an inquiry from the Food and Drug Administration, which forced the company to give up its online hearing test.
However, despite the flak, HealthInnovations persisted and it continues to sell behind-the-ear and in-the-canal hearing aids, made by IntriCon, for less than $1000.
FOCUSING ON THE VALUE SECTOR
For IntriCon, the agreement to provide hearing aids to the UK’s National Health Service starting in 2015 is a logical next step in achieving its stated mission: “to become the global leader in the value hearing products segment of the hearing market through best use of technology, efficiency and volume.” In defining its mission thus, IntriCon distinguishes itself from the Big Six companies, which focus more on high-end products dispensed through private channels.
Mark Gorder, a founder of RTI and now president and CEO of IntriCon, said of the NHS agreement, “This is another meaningful milestone in our strategic plan to drive business in the value hearing health market. The NHS is widely recognized as the most efficient hearing aid delivery system in the world.”
Tom Parker, managing director of PC Werth, said, “We are delighted to partner with IntriCon; our high-quality, low-cost hearing aids will provide more choices for clinicians and users across the United Kingdom.”
Founded by Peter Werth in 1947, PC Werth has long been a major supplier of hearing aids in the UK. Its efforts helped to establish the country’s independent hearing healthcare sector and to develop the UK business for three of the world’s largest hearing aid manufacturers.
INDUSTRY VETERAN COMES ON BOARD
Delain Wright, an industry veteran, recently joined IntriCon as vice-president of business development, value hearing health. With his extensive experience in the UK, he was instrumental in bringing about the pact between his new company and PC Werth to supply hearing aids to the NHS. Wright’s résumé includes stints as CEO of America Hears and as president of two different Siemens companies–Rexton Hearing and the British A&M Hearing.
In a statement released earlier this month, Mark Gorder said that Wright had been hired “to further develop and execute our strategic plan to grow and diversify our value hearing health business.” Gorder added, “This is another significant step in furthering our plan to leverage our existing infrastructure and expand into adjacent markets to create new revenue sources.”
Interviewed this week, Wright told HearingHealthMatters.org that he sees the “value segment” as being the biggest area of potential growth in the hearing aid market. Currently, he said, there is a huge underserved population with hearing loss who can’t or don’t want to pay the prevailing price of hearing aids.
Wright, who had been consulting with IntriCon for about a year before joining the company, praised the work of the NHS, which he said “provides high-quality products and services with a focus on what’s right for the customer.”