Momentum builds for Florida's medical device makers

USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation is working with manufacturers on the next generation of products. CAROLINA HIDALGO   |   Times
USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation is working with manufacturers on the next generation of products.CAROLINA HIDALGO | Times
Published May 4 2013

On the heels of a major tax victory in Tallahassee, leaders of Florida's medical device industry gather this coming week in St. Petersburg for the 10th anniversary of the Florida Medical Manufacturers Consortium. State lawmakers agreed to a sales tax exemption on manufacturing equipment, a win that medical device makers and others say will help keep Florida's modest base of manufacturing more competitive with other states and countries. The industry is still pushing federal lawmakers to end a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices.

Manufacturing may not be a major industry in the Sunshine State, but the business of making medical devices here is behind only California and competing closely with New York in recent years for the No. 2 spot among states. Statewide, 662 medical device makers employ nearly 21,000 workers at an impressive average wage of $60,677. That's why Enterprise Florida, the Tampa Bay Partnership and Tampa Bay economic development groups all tout medical device manufacturing as a key "cluster" in Florida's economic future.

The Tampa Bay Times recently talked to Geary Havran, industry veteran and CEO of contract manufacturer NDH Medical in St. Petersburg, about the challenges ahead. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

How would you describe the state of Florida's medical device manufacturers in recent years?

For the last five years, industry employment has stayed reasonably stable, compared with the negative job trends in general and in other industry manufacturing. Between 2007 and 2012, the average wage in our industry has increased 30 percent, and there was a noticeable growth in the number of firms. So we've done better than most.

What about those new businesses? What's driving that?

We're starting to see more startups as well as more investor interest in the industry in this area. If I look at the Tampa Bay region, at USF (University of South Florida) and CAMLS (Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in Tampa) and the focus on new products, I think a lot of building blocks are in place. We should see some benefit from that.

When I met with Debbie Sutherland, the CEO of CAMLS, she said one of her facility's priorities is working with medical device makers on the next generation of products. Is that happening?

Yes. I know of companies that have used their service. And my own company, NDH, has done so to accelerate product development. For medical device businesses started by physicians who do not have a lot of time, the option to offer a whole startup package has been a real plus.

Are we talking about a helpful addition to the industry or is CAMLS something more significant?

I see this as a quantum leap forward with a structure easier to work with than a traditional university partnership. Its focus on medical devices makes it particularly attractive.

What else has helped drive the medical device industry in Florida?

In our industry, the ability to sterilize medical devices is critical. Florida lacked that capacity in the past. Now we have access to the gamma (ray) facility (the old Vindicator plant) in Mulberry. About half our products are sterilized that way now and the other half is sterilized using ethylene oxide gas. With that infrastructure, we should see more startups.

What's one of the big trends in medical device design these days?

Everybody's trying to make devices smaller.

So how is NDH benefiting from all the interest in Florida's medical device industry?

We have 12 employees and are in the process of doubling the size of our facility in St. Petersburg.