Investors who've been waiting for medical device maker Staar Surgical Co. to get out of the woods finally may be seeing a clearer path.

Last week, the small Monrovia-based company, whose most promising product is an implantable contact lens that competes with laser surgery, posted a 38 percent hike in sales to $20.7 million. Although the company still reported a loss as expected, the surge in sales made the quarter the best in its 25-year history.

The company's implantable contact lens, called the Visian Implantable Collamer Lens, is an alternative to the popular Lasik surgery. Despite receiving FDA approval more than two years ago, the so-called ICL surgery is just beginning to see its way to wider acceptance.

"Word is finally getting out about alternatives to laser surgery," Staar's new Chief Executive Barry Caldwell said. "We're seeing huge growth and we expect it to continue."

Some concerns have been raised recently about Lasik and other refractive laser surgeries used to correct vision, and customers are beginning to ask doctors for other options, said Dr. Brian S. Boxer Wachler of Los Angeles, who performs both kinds of surgeries.

The nation's largest provider of the laser surgery, Cincinnati-based LCA-Vision Inc., reported an unexpected quarterly loss on decreased demand.

"I'm actually doing more ICLs than Lasiks," Boxer Wachler said. "The whole conscience among patients is changing they're starting to ask for alternatives to Lasik."

Boxer Wachler is also one of the big reasons why the word is spreading. In March, he performed a live surgery on NBC's Today Show.

"I got more than 500 e-mails the very next day from customers asking questions about the procedure," he said.

At least some of the increased awareness can be attributed to Caldwell. Since coming aboard late last year, he has increased spending on marketing by 25 percent.

"We've sent the past two years training more than 500 surgeons across the country on how to use the technology," Caldwell said. "It is starting to pay off now."

He also has trimmed costs, increased sales and boosted spending on research and development by 44 percent. He has vowed to make the company break even or profitable by the end of this year.

"He brought a fresh attitude and really reinvigorated the company," said Larry Haimovitch, president of Haimovitch Medical Technology Consultants.

Caldwell took the helm of the struggling company, which had posted more than $40 million in losses the past three years, after investors and some directors became frustrated with the former chief, David Bailey. He resigned as chief executive but remains on the company's board and in charge of its European sales division.

Since Caldwell took over, the company's shares are up more than 60 percent.

The ICL surgery is increasingly popular for those who are severely nearsighted because laser surgery can be ineffective. However, the ICL surgery is expensive about $500 to $1,000 more per eye and it is not permanent.

It is also still in its infancy. Only about 5,000 ICL procedures were done last year compared to more than 1.4 million Lasik procedures.

Of course, that means there is the prospect for exponential growth for Staar if it can get more attention and acceptance.

"Even if Staar captures only 5 percent of the Lasik market, it'll be considered a grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth for the company. It'll be huge," Haimovitch proclaimed.

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