Web Exclusive: Education, Innovation, and Experience give Michigan’s Medical Device Industry a Boost

Author: 
Shana Leonard
Dow Corning  has capitalized on the skilled workforce found in Michigan to produce high-quality silicone products for the medical device industry.

Although it has played a major role in recent years, the automotive industry isn’t the only factor moving Michigan’s medtech sector forward. A convenient location, skilled workforce, and a long history of manufacturing have helped to cultivate a nurturing environment for medical device manufacturing. And it doesn’t hurt that the people have a penchant for innovation, either.

Manufacturing from “the mitten,” as the state’s lower peninsula is affectionately called, allows for the state’s suppliers to easily accommodate the demands of OEMs on both coasts, as well as those of its Midwestern neighbors. “From a national geography standpoint, the majority of the medical device manufacturing in the country happens in the Midwest, I think. You’ve got a hotbed in Minneapolis that we’re just an hour and a half away from by plane, and you can drive that as well,” says William Inman, Jr., elastomers manufacturing team leader for Dow Corning (Midland, MI), a materials supplier specializing in silicone-based technologies.

Along with a convenient location, the state boasts a bevy of universities intent on producing a skilled and educated workforce. In turn, innovation has been  steadily produced by Michiganders. “They’re big on innovation,” concurs Christophe Sevrain, CEO of the consulting firm CJPS Enterprises LLC (Troy, MI). “Michigan is third or fourth in the country in terms of the number of patents per inhabitant.”

The University of Michigan, in particular, is at the forefront of medical technology innovation. A sampling of recent breakthrough research conducted at the university includes the creation of a microfluidic integrated circuit that could simplify lab-on-a-chip devices; a nanomachined liquid glass electrode that can power miniature devices; PEDOT nanotube-coated brain implants to better treat several neurological disorders; and a generator that efficiently converts natural vibrations such as those made by walking into a supplemental power source for body-worn and implantable devices.

And while innovation and education have proven helpful to the area’s medtech sector, it is the skilled workforce and manufacturing roots that help to really set Michigan apart. After all, the state has a long history of manufacturing across a variety of sectors, which has created a base for skilled manufacturing as well as a supportive environment for the growth of medical device manufacturing.

Furniture fabrication carved a niche into the local economy beginning in the late 19th century, for example; Grand Rapids even earned the moniker, “The Furniture City.” Most famously, of course, is automotive manufacturing, which has dominated the state’s economy until the recent economic downturn. “We have certainly seen companies diversify from an automotive or manufacturing base into the medical area, so that capacity is being leveraged into life sciences and medical devices,” observes Steve Wilkowski, new business market development leader for Dow Corning.

Michigan’s medical device industry has further profited from a strong pharmaceutical industry presence for many years in terms of garnering support for the life sciences sector as well as contributing to a highly skilled workforce. More than a century ago, The Upjohn Co., a pharmaceutical manufacturer, was founded in Michigan; other pharmaceutical companies soon followed suit by planting seeds in the supportive state. However, Upjohn merged with Pharmacia in 1995 and then was purchased by drug powerhouse Pfizer in 2003. After this acquisition, Pfizer employed an estimated 9000 Michiganders.

In recent years, though, drug companies have diminished their presence in the state. Pfizer has slashed jobs and closed plants in the area, leaving skilled workers out of jobs. On the bright side, the medical device industry is benefitting from the available knowledgeable local workforce. “We rely today on some of the individuals that have separated with Pfizer and Upjohn to bring the talent we need to serve this industry in the best possible way,” Inman says. “With Pfizer downsizing in Michigan, there are a lot of highly qualified individuals from a GMP and quality perspective, so we have taken advantage of bringing them into our fold where it makes sense.”

Read more about Michigan’s medical device manufacturing sector and the influence of diversification by suppliers to the automotive industry in a Regional Focus article in the June/July issue of MPMN.