Israeli expertise solves a hairy problem

The Syneron hair removal devices are based on Elos – a combined energy technology that uses Bi-Polar Radio Frequency and optical energy (either laser or IPL.) Maybe it’s because Israelis are always interested in fields in which scientific and technological …

The Syneron hair removal devices are based on Elos – a combined energy technology that uses Bi-Polar Radio Frequency and optical energy (either laser or IPL.) Maybe it’s because Israelis are always interested in fields in which scientific and technological expertise can be harnessed commercially, or maybe it’s because they are a Middle Eastern and rather hairy people, it’s a problem that speaks to them personally.

But whatever the reason, Israel has been at the forefront of developing better ways to keep our bodies smooth and free of unwanted fuzz.

The most legendary invention is the best-selling Epilady, an electric hair removal system, developed by Yair Dar and Shimon Yahav in 1986 and manufactured at Kibbutz Goshrim. The device took the US by storm in the late 1980s, after it was introduced there by the three South African sisters, who acquired the US distribution rights. Within six months of introducing Epilady into such high-end department stores as Bloomingdale’s and Marshall Field, it was one of hottest products to hit the US personal-care market in years, with millions of devices sold in its first few years on the market.

Though the Epilady still sells, the name of the hair removal game in the 21st century is laser technology. And Israeli companies are active players in the game, with hair removal representing just one part of a growing market segment – non-invasive aesthetic procedures that are FDA-regulated and usually performed by medical personnel. In addition to hair removal, these procedures include reducing unsightly varicose veins, lesions, treating acne and other skin problems, and wrinkle reduction.

Laser technology has been around since the 1970s. It was first used for hair removal in the mid-90′s safety and effectiveness concerns severely limited its availability and affordability until recent years.

“There were limitations for its use with various kinds of skin and hair,” explains David Shlachet, Chief Financial Officer of Syneron, an Israeli company that has quickly become a leading force in selling devices that remove unwanted hair and perform other cosmetic procedures to US doctors since its establishment five years ago.

“Laser technology is essentially based on absorbing optical energy by specific colors – which works best when you have contrast — dark hair against light skin – but it is much more difficlut when the skin is very dark or the hair is very light and there is not enough contrast. Very dark skinned people are a particularly difficult group to work with effectively,” he told ISRAEL21c.

After many years went by without any significant breakthroughs in cosmetic laser technology, an Israeli scientist named Dr. Shimon Eckhouse developed a technique called IPL or Intensive Pulse Light – which allowed more flexibility in laser use and widened the number of procedures it could be used for. Machines using this technique were sold by Eckhouse’s first company, which was later sold and evolved into the company called Lumenis – which is still a force in the laser hair removal market in the US (Those who are in the business are careful to refer to ‘permanent hair reduction’ and not ‘removal’ as per the direction of the FDA.)

Eckhouse subsequently left the company and became one of the founders of Syneron, established in 2000. Teaming up with new collaborators, Eckhouse then developed what the company calls ‘the third generation’ of aesthetic laser and light technology.

Their patented technology is called Elos – a combined energy technology that uses Bi-Polar Radio Frequency and optical energy (either laser or IPL.)

“Using Elos is safer than using pure optical energy, and offers better efficacy; this expanded the range of applications,” said Shlachet.

The company says that its technique offers safer, more effective, permanent hair reduction from all parts of the body. It can better treat those with light-colored hair or dark-colored skin.

The combined effect of the Bi-Polar Radio Frequency and Diode Laser energies allows the use of less overall optical energy (when compared to light or laser-only devices), increasing the safety of the device and causing less patient discomfort.

“It can be effectively used on dark-skinned people and very blond people with light hair and light skin — and it is safer and more effective for them than laser or IPL alone,” claims Shlachet.

The company’s devices, manufactured in the north of Israel, started to sell quickly after they hit the market in late 2001. The Syneron companies in North America are wholly owned; there are subsidiaries in Germany and Austria, which operate through distributors in 41 countries.

In the US, the company has a sales staff of more then 40. Shlachet says that the company is “one of the leaders” in market share for laser hair removal – it is hard to measure, he says, since the laser platforms have multiple uses and not all of the companies share their sales information.

It is a busy and highly competitive market, but it is also growing. “The market is growing; there are more doctors and clinics and the number of procedures are increasing by 20-25 percent per year. People care more and more about the way they look, and getting hair removed by laser is becoming more socially acceptable,” says Shlachet.

He notes that between 30-40 of hair removal clients and other aesthetic treatment in the U.S. are men. Another reason for its growth: “With the advance of non-invasive technology, it’s become a lunch-break procedure. You can go to a doctor’s office or clinic, get it done, and then go back to work.”

Another factor that is driving sales is the growing number of doctors interested in performing such procedures. In the United States, only doctors are authorized to purchase the laser equipment and perform the procedures. Until now, the doctors doing this were nearly exclusively dermatologists and plastic surgeons. But as it becomes more popular and lucrative, companies like Syneron report that more general practitioners and other specialists like OB/GYNs are entering the market.

There are six publicly traded companies in the United States selling hair removal devices and more than 10 private companies. Of the six public companies, two are Israeli: Lumenis and Syneron, traded on NASDAQ.

Most of the companies, like Syneron, sell different devices for various aesthetic procedures. Syneron sells six platforms, and each platform is capable of being used for a number of applications, including acne and other skin treatment, wrinkle reduction, and cellulite treatment.

Syneron’s primary Israeli competitor in the US marketplace is its predecessor Lumenis, which markets devices using lasers and IPL light sources to reduce unwanted hair. In addition, it manufactures different types of medical equipment for various types of laser surgery, both for regular medical needs, and in veterinarian’s offices on pets.

Another Israeli force in the hair removal arena is a privately-held company called Radiancy, which focuses on making laser and light technology hair removal more affordable and easily available by developing smaller and less expensive devices.

Until now, according to the company’s website, existing laser technology for hair removal has forced current systems to be cumbersome and expensive and the capital investment has kept the price high for the consumer.

Radiancy claims that its SpaTouch product is the only system of its kind to be cleared by the FDA for self-use by the patient. Radiancy’s corporate headquarters is located in Orangeburg, New York, with research and development facilities in Israel.

Syneron, which also has its headquarters in Israel – something which gives it an edge in the field, says Shlachet.

“Growth is our sector is 15 to 20 percent per annum,” he noted. “But because it’s a mature industry, not a new industry, you have to be innovative to move ahead. The reason we had such early success was that after 12 years with no innovations we came in with a new technology.”

What continues to give the Israelis their edge, he is convinced, is the availability and price of local brainpower. “We have a great advantage over our competitors by being based in Israel. Every dollar spent on research and development in Israel gives us about 60 percent more output in Israel than it would if it were spent in Boston or Silicon Valley.”