An industry worth supporting: Medical devices combine high-tech, biotech

There are very few opportunities in the business world to make a profit while at the same time truly bettering the lives of others. Certainly telecommunications gives the world the ability to communicate and the Internet puts information in the hands of most ordinary citizens. However, no industry touches people like the medical device industry does.

When we think of the industry we often picture prosthetic devices, wheelchairs and various hardware in our GP’s offices. This is simply the surface of the industry. There are also drug-delivery systems that are implanted in the body with adjustments made by wireless computers. Or, the promises of the work being done by organizations like ICORD (www.cord.ubc.ca) to help people with severe spinal cord injuries to walk again.

As one would imagine, the size of the industry is enormous and getting bigger. Fuelled by our aging populations we are becoming big consumers of devices like pacemakers, heart valves, and artificial hips. Trying to find exact numbers on the size is daunting as the industry is extremely secretive, however, to put it in perspective, Massachusetts in 2000 shipped US$7.2 billion of equipment. And Massachusetts is not considered the leader in the field.

In B.C., depending on who you talk to, the industry has about 130 companies and sales in the hundreds of millions. Our stars include ALI Technologies (www.alitech.com), which provides digital image networks for medicine, and were recently sold for US$530 million to McKesson Corp. of the U.S. Another B.C. star is Epic Biosonics (www.epicbiosonics.com), one of the world’s most renowned manufacturers of cochlear implants, which help restore hearing.

Canada as a whole, according to Industry Canada, exported $1.6 billion of medical devices in 2000. Driving the worldwide demand for the equipment are aging baby boomers, increasingly inexpensive technology and the growing recognition by insurance companies that medical devices save money. Just as importantly, our universities are turning out scientists with even better understanding of how to use technology in medical applications.

In B.C., our institutions are our shining light, as they are world-class in the work they do and the technologies they spin out. These institutions include groups such as the Neil Squire Foundation, BCIT Health R&D Lab, SFU Gerontology Research Centre, SFU Institute for Human Factors and Interface Technology, Rick Hansen Foundation, the Medical Device Development Centre, VGH Research, and GF Strong. These and more can be found at either http://www.hinetbc.org, a government site set up to promote the industry, or the B.C. Medical Device Industry Association (www.bcmediabc.org).

Another strength in B.C. is our biotech industry. Its stars like Angiotech Pharmaceuticals (www.angiotech.com) combine biotech and medical devices to produce medical device coatings.

Other B.C. companies that are developing extraordinary ideas of how to combine biotechnology and medical devices are quickly adopting the Angiotech model and talent.

We can also look toward our fuel-cell industry to create new opportunity in medical devices. Fuel-cell-powered wheelchairs and using blood as fuel to drive internal medical devices (www.darpa.mil/dso/thrust/md/energy/pa_uta.html) are in the not too-distant future.

Given all this, why isn’t the industry even bigger? I think there are just not enough entrepreneurs who know how interesting it is.

So this is a call for all the entrepreneurs looking to give back to society, but still want to be capitalists. The medical-device industry combines software, hardware, biotech, and materials science — plus it actually helps people. How much more rewarding can you get?

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