Future is now: Springs bioscience sector growing stronger

focus_bioscienceFor the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, the 41 companies in the city’s bioscience sector represent both an economic boon and the chance to create a larger industry cluster that will bring high-paying jobs and high-tech expertise to the region.

From companies that develop stem-cell assays for research laboratories to those that manufacture tiny devices to assist in noninvasive surgical procedures, the Springs bioscience community provides about 7,500 jobs in the community, according to the Business Alliance.

Statewide, those jobs average about $82,000 a year each in salaries.

“The reason we are targeting biosciences is because they are a high-growth, high-value industry with potential,” said Dave White, chief business development officer at the Business Alliance. “Considering that some of our fastest-growing companies are medical-device manufacturers like Spectranetics and Bal Seal, it is important that we pay close attention to this industry.”

Spectranetics is one of a handful of publicly traded companies headquartered in the Springs, and it develops and manufactures single-use medical devices used in minimally invasive procedures within the cardiovascular system. Its products are sold in 40 countries and are used to treat arterial blockages in the heart and legs.

Bal Seal manufactures medical devices for orthopedics and drug delivery, as well as medical electronics for heart and neurostimulation. The company is in the midst of an expansion in northern Colorado Springs that will eventually bring hundreds more jobs to the region.

But the bioscience boom isn’t just happening here. All of Colorado is becoming better known as a hub for bioscience, said Steve Burdorf, COO of CEA Medical Manufacturing, a company that’s had its headquarters in the Springs for 24 years and has grown to around 240 employees internationally.

“It used to be you just heard about Utah or Minnesota, after California,” he said. “Now Colorado’s starting to make a name for itself.”

CEA Medical manufactures medical devices for minimally invasive surgeries — such as the tiny wires used to insert catheters during heart surgeries. It has employees both in the Springs and in the Dominican Republic.

Once the hub of all biomedical innovation, bioscience has become a difficult field in the United States, he said. And for many areas — like medical device creation — venture capital has all but dried up, he said.

“The medical device tax is a major factor,” Burdorf said, “along with the amount of time it takes to get FDA approval. It’s five times as long as it used to be. It’s easier for companies just to go to Europe for testing. “

But now the FDA is taking steps that will allow the United States once again to become the epicenter for bioscience device research and development. And Burdorf said there’s no reason that Colorado Springs can’t take advantage of the coming renaissance.

Burdorf, who took the job in December 2012, says he’s impressed with the efforts the Springs is undertaking to create more bioscience jobs and bring companies to town.

“I think it’s a great area to focus on,” he said. “Typically, the sector is growing about 10 percent a year. Historically, it was 20 percent. If we can get back to that 20 percent — it’s a good market to be in.”

But there are issues, he said. CEA has trouble finding qualified people who can drive the quality and who know about the regulations. Engineers can also be difficult to find in Colorado Springs.

Still, the company has been in the Springs for nearly a quarter-century — and is anticipating more growth in the future. That’s why Burdorf is pleased with the relationship between the Business Alliance and UCCS — an effort to create the workforce necessary to market the city as a bioscience headquarters.

The city is well on its way. Startups that have begun seeking FDA approval for a glaucoma shunt and established corporations like Spectranetics are sharing the bioscience sector in the Springs.

Here are just a few examples.

Aqueous Biomedical

www.aqueousbio.com/

Air Force Academy professor Mike Wilcox set up Aqueous Biomedical to transfer research from AFA labs to commercial use.

Wilcox designed a new shunt, called the Oculieve, to remove fluid buildup from the eyes — a problem caused by glaucoma, a disease in the eye in which pressure from ocular fluids builds up, causing blindness in some cases.

His shunt makes it unnecessary to create a spherical “blister” that many designers believe is necessary to slow down fluid removal.

Instead, Wilcox’s design is a 28-millimeter cylinder with two prongs at the end. When embedded, it occupies 10 millimeters of space — and can drain fluid 16 times more efficiently than other shunts, without the spherical blister that complicates the procedure, creating scar tissue and requiring additional surgeries.

Wilcox’s research shows, he said, that the device is able to drain fluids 16 times more efficiently than other thicker shunts.

Colorado Laser Technologies

www.coloradolasermarking.com/

Operating since 1989, Colorado Laser Technologies is responsible for marking the serial numbers found on dental and medical implants.

The company provides medical, dental and surgical industries with high-contrast marking on stainless steel, plastics, titanium and composite materials that meet industry regulatory FDA requirements.

According to the company’s website, proper identification is crucial for medical implants to maintain lot integrity.

Medical and dental implants are processed to be easily identified with no contamination.

Empirical Testing Corp.

www.empiricaltesting.com/

The brainchild of Dawn and Christopher Lissey, ETC was founded in Ohio in 1998 and moved to Colorado Springs in 2004. The company provides entrepreneurial surgeons, startups and medical device companies with medical-device testing in a certified laboratory setting.

Dawn Lissey has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and worked to design products before launching her own business.

The company’s goal is to turn medical device concepts into products that will meet with regulatory marketing approval.

That means rigorous testing by a staff of engineers, the company’s website said. Started with a single test frame, ETC now has more than 30.

Hemogenix

www.hemogenix.com/

Hemogenix provides testing tools and blood assays for stem-cell research, basic and veterinary research, cell therapy and regenerative medicine and in vitro toxicity testing.

The company was founded in March 2000 by Dr. Ivan Rich, a researcher in developmental, experimental and applied hematology who also is a professor of biology at UCCS.

Homogenix was originally formed as a lab for biopharmaceutical companies to test new drugs for effects on stem cells.

Now the company sells assay kits for in-house use for labs around the world, produced and sold from its Colorado Springs facility.

Peak Analysis and Automation

www.paa-automation.com/index.asp

Created by the merger of Peak Analysis and Automation, a company that is based in the United Kingdom, and Peak Robotics in Colorado Springs, PAA provides automation and measurement technology to the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

Its Colorado Springs headquarters focuses on designing and building a range of laboratory robots and robotic systems.

The company started by designing machines and motion control products — and expanded into manufacturing its own robots. Currently, the robots built in the Springs are used in the biotechnology and clinical automation markets.