Chinese Hearing Implant Takes Aim at Cochlear

Businessweek’s Bruce Einhorn and Natasha Khan report on Hangzhou Nurotron Biotechnology’s efforts to break a “virtual monopoly” on the $1 billion cochlear implant market and drastically undercut the devices’ stubbornly high prices.

That’s what motivated Fan-Gang Zeng to try to come up with a cheaper alternative. The Chinese native, who has a Ph.D. in hearing science from Syracuse University, is director of the Center for Hearing at the University of California at Irvine. Zeng, who launched Nurotron in 2005, says finding researchers to work on his project was not a problem. “Cochlear made a lot of enemies along the way,” Zeng says of the company’s pricing. “So when we asked for help, we got help.” Cochlear declined to be interviewed for this story.

Nurotron also got plenty of assistance in China, where there are 28 million deaf people and 30,000 babies born without hearing each year. The , the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and state-backed contributed about 75 percent of the startup’s initial funding of 30 million yuan (about $3.7 million at the time), Zeng says. Mainland authorities were also willing to fast-track the approval process, which usually takes three to five years. After wrapping up clinical trials in 2010, Nurotron secured permission in less than a year to have its cochlear implants used in patients aged six and older.

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