There's a common link among photographers, scientists and surgeons: a lens. Whether it be inside a camera, a microscope, or an endoscope, success depends on the tiny glass pieces.
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Olympus deals in lens mastery. The $9.8 billion-a-year Japanese company is built on improving them. A better lens means the company can sell better endoscopes, better microscopes, and better consumer cameras. Improve one, improve them all. In a move that exemplifies the company's knack for using medical innovation to drive business in other fields, Olympus has come up with a tool for a new, minimally invasive hysterectomy procedure and parlayed the technology involved into its next-generation digital cameras.
Olympus might be best known for its cameras, but its real success is actually in health care. Health care tools account for some 40% of the company's revenue. Not only is health care more lucrative, it makes for loftier goals—such as taking a crack at modernizing the hysterectomy. The company spent $1.9 billion on an acquisition and two years perfecting a new laparoscopic method. The hope is that doctors will adopt the new technique, and in doing so, buy an Olympus endoscope.
"We're selling the procedure not the product," CEO of Olympus America, Mark Gumz, tells Fast Company. "And that's completely new to us." Whereas before most women needed two months to recover from a hysterectomy, now they're back to work in a week with barely a scar, thanks to Olympus' new laproscopes. Laproscopic surgery has been around for years, but doctors say newer, HD endoscopes make the revolution in hysterectomies possible. The cams are, in effect, surgeons' eyes. Rather than split a patient open, doctors operate through tiny cuts in the skin. The laproscope, a snake-like tool with a camera at the tip, beams back HD video from inside the patient's body.
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Optical technology also powers Olympus's next-generation PEN series consumer cameras, the company's first micro four thirds system. The PEN E-PL1 made waves in May 2010 when the company aired a commercial shot entirely with its video function. The camera's retro casing had design heads drooling, too. In March 2010, it won a Red Dot design award.
The revenue from cameras and microscopes helps buttress Olympus' medical business, which faces more challenges in the marketplace. To sell more endoscopes to use in laparoscopic hysterectomies, Olympus must overcome "surgeons' appetite for change," which is historically weak, says Matthew Garabrant, senior consultant of strategic research at The Advisory Board, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy. Endoscopes don't lend themselves to the same retail cycles as consumer electronics, either. A hospital might use one thousands of times over many years before it's replaced. Meanwhile, photographers jump at the chance to update equipment.
Still, the market for hysterectomies is huge. About 600,000 women in the U.S. will need a hysterectomy in 2011—one in three will need one by the time she turns 60. Most don't know the new option exists yet. In 2008 Olympus plunked down $1.9 billion to buy U.K.-based company Gyrus to get its hands on a unique tissue-cutting laser that slices and cauterizes at the same time. That way, surgeons could safely cut a uterus into small pieces to be taken out more easily. Michelle Porter, 47, a researcher at ASU-Tempe, was 42 when she began having excruciating menstrual cycles. Admittedly a "vain fitness buff," she was ready to suffer for another decade or more, waiting for menopause to start. She didn't want to scar the body she'd exercised and kept out of the sun her entire life. A 21-day period changed her mind.
Her gynecologist, Dr. Deborah Wilson, 58, suggested Porter have the new hysterectomy. "Ninety-five percent of the time there are no complications," Wilson says.
Porter went home from the hospital only one day after the surgery. Three days later, she'd ditched the painkillers and was driving. A week later, she was ready to work again. "Now I feel like I'm in my late 30s again, before I started having issues," she says.
Olympus' bet on hysterectomies has been successful enough that the company is looking to revamp other surgeries. Surely, the breakthroughs of its health care division will make their way to the company's other segments, Gumz explains. Medical innovation might be Olympus' focal point, but using those advancements to build better consumer products is the big picture.