Optonol: Reaping $180m From a Device the Size of a Grain of Rice

Optonol, a company founded in 1996 as a spin-off of Jerusalem-based shunt developer Medinol., will be sold to the U.S. eye care pharmaceuticals and devices giant Alcon, in a deal that could be worth $200 million. According to the research company IVC Online, the company has raised just $22 million from investors since its inception. Optonol develops microscopic drainage shunts for the treatment of glaucoma.

Alcon will pay $170 million to $180 million in the initial stage of the deal, but TheMarker has learned that Optonol's shareholders will receive additional payments based on sales milestones.

The big winner in the sale is Pitango venture capital fund, under the management of Chemi Peres and Rami Kalish, who are leading the current sale on behalf of Pitango. Kalish is said to be a great proponent of the company. A knowledgeable source in the capital market said the deal is tailored to Kalish's preference for enabling portfolio companies to mature before exiting an investment. Pitango is set to receive the lion's portion of the revenues from the sale, an estimated $60 million.

A second major investor is Israel HealthCare Ventures, which owns a 13% stake in the company. Smaller investors include Mizrahi Tefahot Bank CEO Eli Younes and former Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal.

Optonol's product line is considered unique. The shunt developed by the company helps treat glaucoma, one of the most common causes of blindness for people over 40 years of age and affecting more than 13% of the population above 60. As of March of this year, some 40,000 persons were suffering from the disease in Israel. Glaucoma manifests as elevated intraocular pressure. Long-lasting elevated IOP causes damage to the optic nerve, which leads to decreased peripheral vision and eventually to blindness. Optonol has developed the Ex-PRESS, which reduces intraocular pressure in patients who are not responsive to drug therapies. The shunt developed by Optonol is made of the same material used in heart shunts and is smaller than a grain of rice, with an internal diameter of 50 or 200 microns.

One end of the device is beveled to enable precise and controlled insertion, and the other end is provided with a plate to prevent overintrusion of the device (see sketch). A spur on the side of the device locks the shunt onto the eye. Once the tiny shunt is inserted, eye fluid is drained off from the front of the eye, reducing intraocular pressure to the optimal level.

Prof. Orna Geyer, the director of the Department of Ophthalmology at Carmel Medical Center in Haifa, explains that surgical implant of a shunt is done in cases where customary surgery has failed or is not recommended, for instance in case of glaucoma arising from the growth of new blood vessels in the eye, in eyes that have undergone previous surgeries or when secondary glaucoma arises from an eye infection.

Optonol was founded in 1996 as a spin-off of Medinol, after Yaron Ira left Medinol and reached a settlement with other Medinol founders after the firm won financing from Boston Scientific. Ira came to Medinol from Orbotech.

Prof. Benad Goldwasser joined Ira, and after litigation and a settlement agreement, the two were permitted to continue to develop technology they had worked on for their former employer: the intraocular pressure shunt.

Optonol currently has 20 to 30 employees at its Neveh Ilan center outside of Jerusalem. In addition to Ira as the firm's founder and chief executive, the company's management team includes Dan Gazit, chief financial officer; Oded Nissan, vice president R&D and manufacturing; Jonathan Koltin, vice president quality assurance and regulatory affairs; Patrick King, president of Optonol U.S.; and Maital Ben-Hur, director of clinical activities.

Alcon is a U.S.-based medical giant that makes devices for ocular surgery and products for eye treatment. Alcon is traded on Nasdaq, with a market cap of $48 billion. The firm reported revenues of $6.2 billion for 2008, with a net profit of $2 billion. Novartis acquired 74 million Alcon shares in 2008 at $143 per share for a 25% stake in the company.