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HJ REPORT

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000389921.34303.53
DEPARTMENTS: HJ REPORT
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✓ DEMANT TO BUY SONIC INNOVATIONS

William Demant Holding will add Sonic Innovations to its family of hearing care companies, which already includes Oticon, Bernafon, and Interacoustics among others. Demant, a Danish company, and the Salt Lake City-based Otix Global, Inc., parent company of Sonic Innovations and HearingLife (a network of hearing care offices in Australia), announced on September 13 that they had reached “a definitive merger agreement.” Under the pact, Demant will buy all outstanding Otix common stock for $8.60 a share. Demant estimates that the total price at closing will be in the range of $65–70 million, about double Otix's $32.9 equity as of December 2009.

The price per share is 125% higher than the average price of Otix stock over the 30 days preceding announcement of the deal. Right after the news broke, Otix stock immediately doubled to $8.39 a share.

The transaction, which is expected to close by the end of the year, will require the approval of Otix stockholders and of regulatory bodies. To eliminate the risk of the sale being blocked by German anti-trust authorities, as occurred a few years ago when Sonova was prevented from purchasing GN ReSound, Otix announced that it would immediately discontinue its operations in Germany.

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Company comments

In its announcement, Demant said that the addition of the Sonic hearing aid brand would increase its ability to address customer needs. It expects the Sonic brand to play an important part in relation to selected customer segments, particularly in the U.S. Overall, Demant estimated that the acquisition will result in a 1% increase in its share of the global hearing aid market in terms of volume.

In his statement, Sam Westover, chairman and CEO of Otix, said, “The merger with William Demant will provide the research and development, marketing and sales support and resources necessary to further expand Sonic and HearingLife's presence in the hearing healthcare industry.” Westover added, “Otix is proud of the many achievements and contributions it has made to the hearing aid industry.” Since its founding, he said, “it has grown from an innovative start-up company to a leading manufacturer and distributor of superior hearing solutions.”

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✓ SONOVA-OWNED NETWORK COVERS CANADA

Connect Hearing has suddenly emerged as Canada's largest network of hearing care centers, with more than 130 practices. While 77 of them are in British Columbia, the company has offices across the country from the Pacific Coast to Nova Scotia on the Atlantic.

This extensive operation did not spring into existence overnight. Sonova, which also owns the Phonak, Unitron, Sona Hearing, and Lyric hearing aid companies, began buying groups of practices across Canada several years ago. These included Island Hearing and Elite Hearing in British Columbia, Chinook Hearing Centres in Alberta, Better Hearing Centres in Saskatchewan, Decibelle Hearing in Ontario, and Audiology Associates in the Maritimes. Overall, it owned clinics under 24 different brand names.

Sonova did not bring them all together under one name until September 10, when it officially launched Connect Hearing. Craig Cameron, the CEO, said that creating the first national brand of its kind in Canada would make it easier for consumers to access information, testing, and hearing aid products. Cameron added that the Sonova-owned clinics were among the first in Canada to introduce free hearing tests, product trials, and financing options.

The decision to name the new company Connect Hearing was an obvious one, since Sonova already owned Connect Hearing networks in Australia, Belgium, and Mexico. Still, Barry Ringstead, the company's vice-president of marketing, said that it did extensive market research on the name, including holding focus groups with professionals and with consumers. He said, “We wanted to make sure the brand would have resonance for customers.” While Connect Hearing offices dispense primarily products made by Sonova companies, they can also offer other brands, said Ringstead.

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✓ ADA LAUNCHES EFFORT TO PLACE EXTERNS

A shortage of suitable externship positions for fourth-year AuD candidates is one of the toughest problems facing the education of new audiologists. The Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA), which launched the AuD movement, has begun an online resource intended to help address the problem. The ADA Externship Exchange (http://jobs.audiologist.org/) is free to all audiology students and practicing audiologists.

Thomas Goyne, AuD, chair of ADA's web site committee, said, “This web site is not your common job board. The committee developed this open registry to provide fourth-year students from broad educational backgrounds with opportunities to gain experience in a variety of autonomous practice settings, and to make it as easy as possible for preceptors to find qualified externship candidates.”

Goyne added, “I encourage anyone interested in providing a meaningful learning experience for a fourth-year AuD student to consider serving as a preceptor, and I encourage all preceptors to register at the ADA Externship Exchange today.”

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✓ IN ELITE COMPANY

Mexico has presented its highest award for non-Mexicans to William F. Austin, CEO and founder of the Starkey Hearing Foundation. He received the honor, the Azteca Eagle Award, on September 14 from Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the Presidential Palace in Mexico City. Only four other Americans have received the Azteca Eagle Award: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Austin was honored for Starkey Foundation's 37 years of philanthropic work in Mexico. Since the foundation's inception in 1973, it has conducted several missions a year throughout Mexico. In response to the growing demand for hearing help in that country, the foundation has distributed more than 100,000 hearing aids to those in need.

The award presentation, part of Mexico's celebration of the 200th anniversary of its independence, was attended by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and numerous heads of state from other countries.

Austin said, “I am very grateful to receive this honor in the name of the people who have made it possible. No one can do much alone. It takes a team to significantly impact the challenges we face in life.” The founder of Starkey Laboratories noted, “Mexico was the start of our international outreach. We partnered with Flying Samaritans in 1973 to deliver hearing aids to the underprivileged in various Mexican communities.”

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✓ MANUFACTURERS STRENGTHEN CONSUMER LINKS

The big six hearing aid manufacturers are in a constant battle to gain market share. The ever-more-frequent introduction of new products, the acquisition of smaller companies (such as Demant's purchase of Sonic Innovations reported above), and efforts to gain control of distribution, such as Sonova's formation of a trans-Canadian network of clinics, are all part of that competition.

The major companies are also looking to win the hearts and minds of prospective hearing aid users through consumer information initiatives. Last month, both Oticon and Starkey Laboratories announced such programs.

Starkey reported on September 7 that it is partnering with the National Council for Better Hearing (NCBH) to launch Hearing-Aid.com. Although NCBH is chaired by Barry Freeman, PhD, a former AAA president who is now Starkey's senior director of education and audiology, its board also includes prominent hearing care professionals not employed by the company.

Starkey described Hearing-Aid.com as an online resource “to provide people with hearing loss, and those that love them, with all of the resources they need to attack hearing loss head-on.” Freeman explained, “Our goal is to provide educational and professional resources that empower individuals to better understand and deal with hearing loss, from causes and complications to treatments.”

Hearing-Aid.com suggests steps for consumers to take, including creating a hearing journal to identify which situations are most difficult to hear in. The site can also connect individuals with hearing professionals in their area “to provide assessments and find the right solution for a particular hearing loss.” According to a Starkey spokesperson, most of the professionals to whom Hearing-Aid.com refers consumers offer Starkey products. However, not all are Starkey customers and a great many dispense multiple brands.

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Oticon partners with HealthyHearing.com

Nine days later, Oticon, Inc. announced that it has formed “a partnership” with Healthy Hearing, a consumer-oriented web site. The site, originally created by Audiology Online and purchased by Oticon earlier in 2010, attracts 400,000 visitors a year. It offers a variety of content for consumers, some promoting Oticon products, some providing generic information about hearing loss and hearing care.

However, the primary goal of Oticon's partnership with HealthyHearing.com is “to connect people actively seeking hearing solution and hearing loss information to hearing care professionals in their communities.” Peer Lauritsen, president of Oticon, said, “Research tells us that 30% to 40% of individuals are ready to take action when they conduct an online search. With the Oticon/Healthy Hearing partnership, we provide an alternative to web sites that sell directly to consumers and at the same time, support our valued business partners with access to people in their communities who are actively seeking hearing care solutions.”

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✓ FISH OIL LINKED TO BETTER HEARING

The omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish oil have been reported to sharpen memory, prevent depression, improve the health of pregnant women and their unborn babies, relieve gastric distress, prevent wrinkles, and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and the risk of breast cancer. So, it is no surprise that it has also been linked to reduced hearing loss in adults.

A study conducted by Paul Mitchell and colleagues at the University of Sydney found that people who ate fish at least twice a week had a 42% smaller chance of getting hearing loss than those who ate less than one serving a week. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tracked 2956 subjects ages 50 and older over a 7-year period.

The authors suggest that the cardiovascular benefit documented for omega-3 fatty acids and fish may help maintain or improve blood flow to the cochlea, thereby helping prevent hearing loss. Additionally, they said, omega-3 fatty acids and fish could have a direct effect on cochlear microcirculatory flow or provide benefits via other mechanisms.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.