INSIGHT ON Health & Medical Industries – Using our devices – New North region looks to grow medical device sector

Posted on Apr 1, 2012 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Jeff Leismer believes he has the right prescription for bringing products to market: Don’t try to do it all yourself. Leismer, CEO of a Sheboygan-based startup that is developing vibration therapy products, says his company – VibeTech – benefits from close proximity to companies with expertise in building custom machinery. VibeTech recently reached an agreement with Associated Machine Design, a Green Bay manufacturer of custom machinery, for the design engineering involved in bringing VibeTech’s “Rehab Chair” to market.

VibeTech’s products fight bone loss in the elderly. To achieve a vibration effect, the products use high-speed rotary components — a type of part AMD is skilled at making. Leismer says it makes sense to tap such expertise.

“It would be way too costly for us to try to bring in house all the manufacturing expertise and capacity needed to develop and make our products,” he says. “We have extremely talented, experienced manufacturers in this region. Why not use them?”

This happy coincidence of a region with medical device innovators and a high concentration of manufacturing experts is a key reason why Northeast Wisconsin may begin to see more growth in the sector.

While some regional companies have been making medical equipment for decades and are expanding, there also is more organized networking taking place that could spawn new products.

One organization focused on such networking is the Wisconsin Medical Entrepreneurship Foundation (WMEF), a collaborative effort between the WiSys Technology Foundation, and three clinical institutions in the state: Aurora Health Care, BayCare Clinic and Marshfield Clinic Applied Sciences. WiSys is a technology transfer organization serving all University of Wisconsin System campuses other than Madison and Milwaukee.

According to Maliyakal John, managing director of WiSys, the WMEF links up care providers who have device ideas with UW research experts, and also has introduced participants to manufacturing experts. The WMEF founders also have built up a $1 million fund to help ideas get developed.

Since WMEF launched in October 2010, about 35 device ideas are in various stages of development, says John. But because it typically takes two to five years for a concept to be ready for market, none of the devices have hit the market yet.

Some Northeast Wisconsin companies are involved with WMEF. For example, VibeTech has applied for funding for some clinical testing. WMEF also has introduced some participants to Fused Innovation, a Neenah-based provider of product development and rapid prototyping services.

David Kettner, director of business development for Fused Innovation, says the company has worked on a couple of concepts via WMEF. Kettner says the doctors functionally know what they need from a device, but typically don’t know the design constraints.

“They have their dream for what would be the ideal device, but they need guidance on how to make the product,” Kettner says. “There might be limits on how that device can be produced. What we can do is show them, ‘Here’s how we believe you can produce this device while still meeting the purpose you have in mind.’”

The challenge for physicians is that they just don’t have the time or the contacts to turn an idea into a product, says Dr. Paul Summerside, BayCare’s chief medical officer.

“The foundation can provide that back-office infrastructure so that when [physicians] have an idea, they have a framework for putting it on a path toward development,” he says.

For all the potential in new ideas, regional growth in the medical equipment market today tends to come from established companies. For example, Fond du Lac-based Basic American Medical Products, a unit of GF Health Products that makes health care beds, recently completed an expansion of its facility by 40,000 square feet and added some new equipment.

Kurt Hellman, senior vice president of manufacturing for the unit, says the expansion is part of GF’s Made in America strategy, but also is a confirmation of the effectiveness of the unit and regional partners.

“Much of what we do involves metal fabrication, welding and assembly, and we have a great group of folks with these skills,” says Hellman.

“Not only that, we have a good supply base in this region for parts, as well as for support functions like tooling. All of those things come together to make this a good region to make the products that we do.”

QAL Medical, a medical equipment manufacturer in Marinette, also expanded in 2011, adding 19 positions for its own line of continuous passive motion devices it began building in Marinette.

Jamie Smiley, director of operations, says QAL’s workers are meticulous in the way they perform tasks, not just on the plant floor, but also with customer service procedures.

“It’s a culture of hard work and taking pride in what they are doing,” Smiley says. “Our people take assembly, cost effectiveness and on-time delivery very seriously.”