Medical RD reveals signs of economic life


    Medical research and development in West Michigan has transformed over the past decade, according to a report from Grand Valley State University.

    A different and larger set of companies dominated patents, pre-patent and patent applications assigned in the 2000s as compared to the 1990s, GVSU professor of economics Paul Isely said.

    “What we have is a bigger group of companies that are focusing specifically on medical care as opposed to having it as a small portion of their business,” Isely said. “This level of flip is surprising.”

    Isely co-authored “Health Check: Analyzing Trends in West Michigan” with economics professor Hari Singh. Isely said the report is the first step in an ongoing analysis of the health care and life sciences sector in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.

    Patent-related activity has its flaws as a measure of research and development in an area, Isely said, but it still gives a flavor of the general direction.

    Much of local medical R&D is early-stage, Isely said. Companies have options that can shield their projects, at least for a time, from public view; the very small companies that are common in the medical device field may forgo a patent in favor of the proprietary route; plus, the U.S. Patent Office is faced with a huge backlog that extends the time between application and approval into years.

    Isely said that in the 1990s, medical-related activity slacked but saw a “re-birth” in the 2000s.

    President Ryan Goosen said research and development is mission critical at INRAD Inc., a Kentwood company that was spun off in 1997 after its parent company was acquired by medical device manufacturer Medtronics Inc.

    INRAD employs engineers who take ideas from in-house or from physicians and turn them into reality, he said.

    “We try to patent all of our new devices. Being a small company, it is one of our only means for protection and competitive advantage over bigger companies.”

    For example, INRAD Inc. recently brought to market three needle-based oncology products that are patent pending after getting the OK from the federal Food and Drug Administration. The company said the products could double sales this year and allow it to add to its staff of 15.

    “What’s good about that is our patent activity that we’re showing here understates the activity that is going on in West Michigan,” Isely said. “More patents show that you have more researchers, which are workers that are more creative than many jobs that are out there. As you see an increase in patents, you have an increase in more researchers, in more people willing to take risks to come up with an idea, so that’s an indicator of more entrepreneurial activity going on in medical device creation.”

    That’s no surprise to Linda Chamberlain, former executive director of the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, which houses the West Michigan Medical Device Consortium.

    “We were very intentful in developing a device consortium at the point in time when a lot of the ideation and early stage IP creation was needing implementers,” said Chamberlain, who was recently named to lead GVSU’s new Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. “We had an intention several years ago at WMSTI to encourage companies to take the leap from being Tier 1, 2 and 3, to moving into the proprietary product space.”

    In the 1990s, DLP Inc. was the local leader in patent-related activity and was gobbled up by Medtronics in 1993. In the last decade, the leader was Van Andel Institute. Isely said he counted more than 25 patents, pre-patents and patent applications at the VAI, which also lists 11 inventions on its Web as being available for licensing.

    XenoBase — molecular data management software developed several years ago at the VAI by researcher Craig Webb, with $40,000 in seed money secured by WMSTI — has been licensed to many for-profit and nonprofit organizations around the world. The VAI also has done “a significant amount” of work for several pharmaceutical companies on three continents, VAI Vice President of Business Development Jerry Callahan said.

    “Millions of dollars have been generated as a result of the activity; none of it was patented,” he said.

    The growth of R&D is causing other changes in Grand Rapids business, he added.

    “The intellectual property law firms almost exclusively used to be engineering IP,” he said. “We have a whole new set of IP people and support people around town now that have to be able to understand and respond to what the doctors and researchers and the medical community needs. Law firms, accounting firms, capital, even banking is starting to understand the nature of our business.”

    Big R&D players draw researchers to the area and create opportunities for smaller companies, Isely said. The key is translating R&D into dollars flowing into the region, whether they arrive in the form of research grants, manufacturing jobs or venture capital. HQ

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