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Will Transitions Optical, other companies help health-related hub emerge in Pinellas Park?

PINELLAS PARK

California has its Silicon Valley. North Carolina lays claim to Research Triangle Park. RTP for short. So why couldn't Pinellas Park one day emerge as the Medical Mile or HRH? That, of course, stands for Health-Related Hub.

It's not the only area of the state that has a cluster of sought-after, well-paying, medical-related jobs, but Pinellas Park has a growing number of health-related employers. It even boasts the global headquarters of lensmaker Transitions Optical.

These employers say the work force, area schools, local suppliers and the weather are good for business. Medical manufacturing jobs, with their high wages and stimulation of other businesses, are good for the county.

"The average salary in the medical device sector is just under $50,000. Pinellas is doing a great job in terms of those high-tech, high-wage jobs," said County Commissioner Ken Welch. "Tourism is our largest industry, but one of the best-kept secrets is we are No. 2 in medical device manufacturers and Pinellas is No. 1 in the state of Florida."

"The whole county has a strong medical device presence, with some in St. Petersburg and some in Palm Harbor,'' said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County economic development. "But the biggest concentration of everything in the county is between Belleair Road and Park Boulevard."

It may be surprising to find out what's being made in your own back yard.

Innovations equals employment

"I had no idea how many medical device companies there were in this area. Pinellas Park is a great fit for us," said John Fisher, founder and CEO of Biopsy Sciences.

Eleven years ago he injected a gel that absorbs water into a raw chicken breast and soon invented a new kind of marker for breast biopsies that shows up better in an ultrasound exam. Fisher started Biopsy Sciences in Clearwater, moved it to Arizona to be closer to venture capital funds, then moved the company to Pinellas Park in 2008. It employs nine people.

"It's definitely the hub of medical device companies. There are also all sorts of businesses here that really support medical device companies," he said, pointing to Melco box and packaging manufacturer in Pinellas Park and Micro custom manufacturer in Largo, which added 25 jobs last year.

"Easily 10 of those extra operators and probably two engineers are to keep up with the demand for Biopsy Sciences," said Micro's Shawn McNary.

Transitions employs 400 people at its Pinellas Park world headquarters and plant, where the company makes photochromic eyeglass lenses that change from light to dark in different amounts of light. The company started 20 years ago as a joint venture between PPG Industries and Essilor International, a French company with a U.S. presence in St. Petersburg. Essilor recently moved to Dallas, but Transitions stayed in Pinellas Park.

"The reason why we're still here is we built some significant infrastructure here, not only on the plant side but the people side," said Brian Hauser, Transitions' general manager for the United States and Canada. "We do a lot (of recruiting) with local universities. We draw richly from the surrounding state university systems as far as the engineering and chemistry sides of it."

Nineteen of every 100 pairs of glasses sold in the United States are made by Transitions. It has 1,800 employees worldwide, with four plants in other countries. All of the research and development for new types of lenses is done in Pinellas Park in a 200,000-square-foot facility off Belcher Road, tucked among trailer parks and chain restaurants.

The company, which was awarded the Gallup Great Workplace Award last year, also promotes from within. Employees who start on the production line with a high school degree may eventually be trained to become technicians and work alongside chemists and engineers.

Transitions has found, however, that it often has to look outside the area for consumer marketing expertise. Although there are few local candidates with sufficient backgrounds, Pinellas Park has proven to be a good tool in recruiting employees.

"We just interviewed a candidate from Illinois," Hauser recounted. "He basically told us 'I like your company. I like the growth, but if it were somewhere else I wouldn't be as interested.' ''

A well-trained work force is a draw for new businesses and an anchor for existing ones, Meidel said. Along with strong universities and colleges in the area, he cited examples of some specialized training such as a machining program at Pinellas Technical Education Center that teaches students to convert instructions and blueprints to programs for machines. St. Petersburg College has a pharmacy technology program and is one of only a handful of institutions in the country to offer a bachelor's degree in orthotics and prosthetics.

Manufacturing mobility

Vince Smith, president of Endorphin Corp., which manufactures rehabilitation exercise equipment, said the area's work force, along with the proximity to suppliers, is one of the best advantages to being in Pinellas Park.

"Pinellas Park is in a more industrialized part of the county. There are a lot of other small businesses here that can facilitate materials or components that you need," he said. "The resources are here and the work force is here. If we were in a different location, the cost of transporting parts to and from that location would increase."

Its 10 employees work in marketing, accounting, welding, fabricating and assembly. The company manufactures about 30 exercise products for disabled or elderly users.

Most Endorphin products are sold to hospitals, rehab centers or long-term care facilities. Four months ago it launched its first consumer product, the "Independence Chair." The $1,595 chair helps people who are too weak to go from sitting to standing on their own. As it aids mobility it builds muscles.

Another Pinellas Park company unconnected to Endorphin also creates products to offer independence. Top End's 30 employees manufacture, design and market high-performance handcycles and wheelchairs specially designed for basketball, racing and tennis. It makes about 3,000 chairs a year that retail for $2,300 to $8,500.

Demand from Asia and Europe for a dance wheelchair prompted Top End to recently develop a chair for dancing that sells for $2,300 to $4,000, depending on the bells and whistles.

"It has to turn as quickly and smoothly as possible," said Mary Carol Peterson, marketing manager. "To do this you have to put the body directly over the axle. There is an antitip bar in the back so they don't tip over backwards."

Perhaps one day the winner of So You Think You Can Dance can say a little company from the HRH in Pinellas Park made it possible.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@sptimes.com.

Will Transitions Optical, other companies help health-related hub emerge in Pinellas Park? 09/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 5:31pm]

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