For the third quarter running, Canadian laser eye services provider TLC Vision (NASDAQ:TLCV) has managed to post a profit -- no doubt driving many shareholders to shed another tear of joy after several losing years.

The operator of more than 400 fixed and mobile labs, wherein patients have their vision problems treated with LASIK and photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) laser treatments, grew its revenues by 23% vs. Q3 2003. Meanwhile, the company swung to a $0.05-per-diluted-share profit against its year-ago $0.06 loss.

That's pretty impressive, considering that the company faces some stiff competition in the market for re-jiggering corneas to see things the way nature intended. Of the three major players, TLC is the biggest -- and the priciest by far. It sports a market cap of $675 million against just $17 million in free cash flow. Subtract its net cash to arrive at the company's enterprise value, and you'll find that TLC has an enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio (EV/FCF) of 38 -- pretty expensive for a company with a single-digit return on equity.

Value-oriented investors, therefore, might want to consider a couple of alternatives. Little NovaMed (NASDAQ:NOVA), a micro cap with under $100 million in market value, is selling for an EV/FCF of about 14 (although it also has just a single-digit ROE, making it less than a bargain). In the middle of the pack is LCA-Vision (NASDAQ:LCAV), with an EV/FCF of just 17 and a sterling ROE of 35%.

Then there's another way to play the possibility that this industry will become the "next big thing." In an indication of how "hot" laser eye surgery is becoming, a new company, IntraLase (NASDAQ:ILSE), just entered the market in an IPO last month. IntraLase manufactures the lasers used in about 15% of the procedures performed in the U.S. last quarter. Any investment in the company right now would be, at best, a speculation, given that IntraLase lacks either profits or free cash flow. But as Fool member Vladimer recently outlined on our patented Foolish Hidden Gems discussion boards, there is reason for hope that the company will see profits next quarter.

Will it happen? It did for TLC. As for IntraLase, we'll have to wait and see.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article.