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Aesthetic laser market looks good for Quantel

17 Jun 2002

Back in 1993, when Alain de Salaberry stepped in to buy Quantel, the Paris-based laser manufacturer was piling up losses. Since then, however, its revenues have increased ten-fold. Michael Hatcher has lunch with the man who managed to turn the company around.

From Opto & Laser Europe April 2002

He might own half of the company, but Alain de Salaberry still can't always find a parking space outside Quantel's Paris headquarters. Not that it bothers him unduly. With a post-lunch shrug, he pulls up on the grass verge directly outside the front door instead. Très Parisien, you might say.

The boss's attitude highlights the egalitarian spirit at Quantel. Navigating his way along the company corridors, de Salaberry is met with a volley of bonjours around each corner from his busy, dressed-down staff.

It is doubtful that this was always so. When de Salaberry decided to buy the firm from Aerospatiale nine years ago, Quantel was in serious trouble and the first action of its new owner was to cut costs.The problems began to pile up in 1985, when Quantel's founder Georges Bret left to buy out US-based subsidiary Quantel Internationale. He promptly relaunched the offshoot as Continuum - Quantel's most aggressive competitor. At the same time, Quantel's R&D manager left to join another rival company in France.

With its access to the US market lost and facing extra competition, Quantel's annual sales had tumbled from FFr 82m in 1984 to just FFr 23m by 1993.

"In 1993, Aerospatiale didn't know how to handle Quantel - I bought it with a lot of debt, and a lot of losses," says de Salaberry. But clearly these problems were not serious enough to put him off buying the company. So why did he do it? "The losses at the time were because of the amount of money spent on developing new projects. So the money hadn't been wasted, it was just creating technology that was in search of a market."

A key development was the founding of Quantel Medical, which de Salaberry created shortly after taking over the firm. Quantel's medical division now accounts for exactly half of the company revenues.

Photocoagulation products for ophthalmology, along with ultrasonic sensors, were the first new applications to emerge under de Salaberry's leadership. Later came dermatology products, followed by the creation of Laserblast, a subsidiary dedicated to stone-cleaning with nanosecond-pulse Nd:YAG lasers, in 1994. In 1997 the company floated on the Nouveau Marché de Paris, and in the following year came de Salaberry's boldest move - the takeover of US-based Big Sky Laser. "If you want to be in the laser business, you have to have a presence in the US," he says.

More problems followed, at least initially. Big Sky and Quantel had some overlap, and a series of high-profile Big Sky orders suddenly collapsed: "Maybe it was the French touch," jokes de Salaberry. But he can afford to laugh now. Since its US operations were restructured, the Quantel group has finally started making money again. In 2001 its profits reached EURO 1.2m - the best results in 10 years.With the three-pronged company structure in place (its headquarters are in Les Ulis, next door to Orly airport to the south of Paris; its medical division is in Clement-Ferrand, central France; and Big Sky is based across the Atlantic in Montana), everything was starting to look rosy and Quantel was well on course for an even better result in 2001.

But then September 11 happened.

Since then, the drop-off in the aerospace industry has seen orders for UV laser cable-marking systems disappear. Automotive industry woes have had some similar effects, but Quantel has still posted a profit - something of which de Salaberry is clearly very proud. And in spite of the general downturn, he is upbeat about 2002: "We have so many other products that are doing well. I'm expecting gross sales to increase by 10% again."

The medical sector, particularly the aesthetic market, is the main target. "We expect major growth in the aesthetic and dermatology markets," de Salaberry says.The firm has high hopes of the Aramis, a 1.54 µm-emitting erbium-glass laser, which claims to smooth wrinkles. After some initial problems following its US launch in 2001, Quantel is now building the systems at "full speed", hoping that the application will catch on among the UV-exposed population of the south of France.

"I have seen some women in the south of France [who have had the treatment], and they are very happy. And even better, they are bringing their friends to have the same treatment," says de Salaberry. The anti-wrinkle laser works by stimulating collagen growth beneath the skin. According to de Salaberry, the clinical trials involving the Aramis were extremely successful, with follow-up studies showing continued collagen growth one year on from the initial treatment and an 18% increase in dermis thickness. "It lasts a long time, and is preferable to botox injections," he smiles.

With his quantum-physics background from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris (which has since moved to Palaiseau), de Salaberry is fully conversant with the details of his laser systems, and he claims that the Aramis is superior to its competition. "There is a 1.44 µm diode laser product by Candela, but we think that our 1.54 mm source works best because it allows us to treat the area between 200 µm and 1 mm below the skin's surface. You can also select the depth, depending on how you cool the skin and how much energy you put into the beam."

The Aramis uses a pulse train to confine heating to the upper dermis, and the 1.54 µm wavelength also minimizes absorption by melanin.

From the Aramis, Quantel derived the Athos, used for hair removal. It has the same shape and uses the same electronics as the Aramis, but the erbium-glass laser is replaced with an Nd:YAG crystal operating at the fundamental 1064 nm wavelength. Its two-pulse system employs an initial pulse to prepare the skin before the second removes the hair. De Salaberry is hoping to undercut the market - the Athos is cheaper than rival systems already available.

Carrying on the aesthetic theme is the Viridis, a diode-pumped, frequency-doubled Nd:YAG, which is scheduled for launch this month and was on show at the recent American Academy of Dermatology meeting in New Orleans, US. The Viridis treats vascular lesions and features such as port-wine birthmarks, by targeting the enhanced absorption of oxyhaemoglobin at the green 532 nm wavelength.

"In dermatology, we think that we have a unique line of products - either innovative or cheap," claims de Salaberry.

With the award of a contract to make laser rangefinders, the military market is also opening up for Quantel. And Laserblast's surface-cleaning projects are holding up well. A massive project is currently in progress in the Netherlands, where engineers are using an Nd:YAG source channelled down 40 m of optical fibre to clean Rotterdam City Hall.Although it is still a niche market, de Salaberry sees future applications in electronics and aerospace developing. "It's costly to do the tests and find the customers, but we think that in the long term it could be a big market, perhaps in a couple of years' time." Quantel has also been able to penetrate the growing Indian market with some scientific lasers, thanks to the comparatively relaxed export rules in France.

Quantel re-invests about 10% of its revenues into R&D projects. Although de Salaberry is reluctant to reveal specific details, he says that the company is looking at all sorts of crystals to develop its solid-state laser product line.

There are no plans to delve into the ultrafast laser market, as de Salaberry is not convinced that there is money to be made at the moment. He is waiting to see which truly industrial applications emerge. "I am sure that its day will come. And when it does, in Patrick Maine (chief executive of Big Sky Laser), we have an expert in ultrafast technology." Maine previously worked with Gerard Mourou of the Centre for Ultrafast Optical Science in Michigan, US.

No major expansion plans are envisaged in the next couple of years, as de Salaberry reckons that with its existing infrastructure Quantel can grow organically to make at least another 40% increase in revenues.

That said, he is cautious about predicting specific growth targets for the coming years. His experiences in recent times have taught him that the unexpected is often lurking around the corner.

Quantel www.quantel.fr

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