Center Maryland: Med-Tech: Baltimore’s next big win?

Don Fry headshot - July 2015

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on October 23, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

When people think of Baltimore and medicine, marquee institutions such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center and other leading medical facilities easily come to mind.

However they probably don’t think of Baltimore as a hub for innovative medical technology companies.

But if the business community, elected officials and government agencies were to focus and work together to put the right pieces of the puzzle into place, that could change.

The city already has assets in place to build on so it could become an emerging hotbed for the medical technology industry, spurring economic growth and high-paying jobs.

It is critical that we leverage the city’s many existing assets while identifying and filling in the gaps that may be holding the area back from making medical technology the next big win for Baltimore. The Greater Baltimore Committee sponsored a meeting earlier this month to discuss a new report released by the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech), entitled “Encouraging the Development of Medical Technology Cluster in the Baltimore Region.”

With the help of the Johns Hopkins Graduate Student Consulting Club, Mtech interviewed 20 CEOs, economic development officials and venture capitalists in the Greater Baltimore region about the potential to foster and sustain a strong medical technology industry in the area.

Martha Connolly, director of Mtech, says the interviews and findings underscore that Baltimore already has a lot going for it to build and sustain a medical technology industry. But there are gaps or “bottlenecks” that need addressing.

Jason Brooke is the CEO and general counsel for Vasoptic Medical, Inc., which is developing an easy-to-use, portable imaging device to help primary care doctors detect eye damage occurring from diabetes. The company recently relocated from Columbia to Baltimore’s thriving Locust Point area.

Brooke also is bullish on the potential to cultivate the currently small and diffuse med tech industry in the area into a connected powerhouse that fuels high-paying jobs and innovation.

Among the reasons:

  • There are already a number of small medical technology companies that have developed in Baltimore thanks to the growing innovation culture, or have chosen to move to Baltimore.
  • Access to invaluable research collaborations and brainpower at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
  • Historical strength and worker skills in manufacturing, which medical device makers need.
  • Potential research or business collaborations with NASA or defense contractors in the region, which have engineering capabilities that could help medical device and medical IT companies.
  • Proximity to the FDA headquarters and other federal agencies tied to healthcare.

Despite these and other strengths, there are some steps city, state and business leaders can take now to ensure we don’t miss the opportunity.

A key step identified in the “Encouraging the Development of Medical Technology Cluster in the Baltimore Region” is establishing a medical technology innovation center.

This could provide expertise and resources, such as legal advice, that early stage or start-up companies otherwise may not be able to access. Additionally, Baltimore lacks the presence of a big, successful medical technology company, which typically spurs creation of an industry hub.

Lacking that ingredient, the Mtech report notes, it’s worth exploring attracting a mid to large medical technology company to establish a presence in Baltimore through an innovation center so new ventures could connect to their expertise.

There are plenty of other good ideas being discussed on how to move Baltimore forward as a medical technology hub. Some of these include:

  • Establishing a forum in which existing companies in the area can discuss and coalesce around a set of specific recommendations for elected city and state leaders to consider that would help the industry grow and thrive in Baltimore.
  • Developing more public funding options beyond seed funding, perhaps focused on accelerating the growth of young, successful companies.
  • Creation of a public fund which rewards medical technology companies when they gain FDA approval to market a new product.
  • A recruitment program to draw experienced business executives to young companies that need their expertise on how to get to the next level.

These all seem like sensible steps that city and state legislators should discuss with industry representatives and the wider business leadership in the region so we can find common ground and start moving on some smart targets.

Another key is sustaining and growing interest in this blossoming idea of Baltimore as an emerging med-tech hub.

Any successful economic growth strategy focuses on playing off your strengths and keeping an eye on emerging industry sectors that fit within your asset base. Health care remains at the top of our region’s assets and our growing innovation and entrepreneurial community is poised to be a key attribute to a significant medical technology industry sector.

Keeping focused, collaborating and playing off our regional strengths will help to keep the momentum going so Baltimore doesn’t miss out on what looks to be a big win for all.

Don Fry is President & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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