Bloomington's Med-Tech Industry Is A Lifesaver

Bloomington, Indiana, has one of the largest clusters of medical-device and life-science companies in the nation. And they aren’t just pumping out tongue depressors. They’re developing technologies that save lives and improve surgical outcomes.

Eventually your body will break down. And when it does, there’s a good chance workers in Bloomington, Indiana, helped craft the parts enabling its repair. Home to industry giants such as Cook Medical, the world’s largest privately held medical device maker, Bloomington harbors one of the most significant clusters of medical-device and life-science companies in the nation.

These companies aren’t just pumping out tongue depressors. They’re developing cutting-edge technologies that can save lives and improve surgical outcomes.

Take Cook, which specializes in minimally invasive surgical devices that allow doctors to operate on patients who are too high-risk for major surgery. The company’s Zenith series of endovascular grafts have transformed abdominal aortic surgery--a surgery where the incidence of death from complications is as high as 50%--into a simpler, safer procedure that can be accomplished in about an hour, requiring only local anesthesia.

The startup Morris Innovative has designed an FDA-approved medical device that uses a futuristic new bio-tissue (created by Cook Biotech) to help patients heal faster. Extracellular material derived from the small intestine of a pig is attached to a surgical catheter; when the device is removed from the femoral artery at the end of cardiac surgery, the bio-material left behind sends signals to the body to bring in its own in-house stem cells to seal and remodel the arterial hole. “It provides a matrix for the stem cells to come into,” said CEO John Morris. “It basically gives you a new whatever it is that you’re replacing.” And that can reduce a patient’s recovery time in the hospital.

Other examples of innovation abound: Indiana University pediatric surgeon Mark Rodefeld has invented a tiny pump that keeps a newborn’s blood oxygenated while surgeons repair the heart of a child born with a single ventricle. Aeon Imaging has developed a laser-scanning digital camera that uses near infrared light to see past cataracts and detect underlying eye diseases.

How did Bloomington, a midsized city in the middle of the country, become a bastion of biotech innovation? The story starts with Cook Medical. In 1963, Bill Cook founded a company with $1,500 in capital in the spare bedroom of his Second Street apartment where, with help from his wife, he assembled Cook Medical’s first catheters and helped launch a new era of less invasive surgeries.

Today, Cook Group is the city’s second largest employer after Indiana University, produces about 15,000 products, generates roughly $2 billion in annual revenues, and exports to some 140 global markets. At the time of his death last year, Cook was the richest man in Indiana; his wife Gayle remains at no. 96 on the Forbes 400 list, worth an estimated $3.4 billion.

Cook Medical is the biggest but not the only reason a booming medical device and pharmaceutical industry has bloomed in Bloomington, a city of about 80,000. Life-science jobs are six times more concentrated in Bloomington than the national average, according to a report by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. The cost of living is about 13% under the national average, and workers are cheaper here, too: Wages in the Bloomington life-sciences industry are about half of the $87,000 national average, according to the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University.

Affordable workers, cheap living, and the presence of Cook Medical eventually gave rise to a life-sciences industry cluster. Other big players include Baxter, which purchased a division of Cook that made prefilled syringes and contrast dyes for medical scanning in 2001. Baxter’s Bloomington campus underwent a $100 million expansion in 2006 and is now a leading U.S. maker of medical products such as sterile prefilled syringes, vaccines, and vials. Completing the triumvirate is Boston Scientific, which maintains a facility in nearby Spencer, a town with 2,200 residents and 1,500 medical-device jobs. Joining the big three are a number of newer and smaller knowledge-intensive outfits such as BioConvergence, Aeon Imaging, and Morris Innovative.

“Things are continuing to grow,” says Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “The life-sciences industry in the Bloomington area has grown much faster over recent years than industry generally.”

Baxter’s expansion and the emergence of Cook subsidiary Cook Pharmica have been big drivers of growth in the last decade, which saw life-science jobs nearly double in Bloomington. Cook Pharmica benefits from one of the town’s two Community Revitalization Enhancement Districts, where the city takes a slice of the income taxes generated within the district and deposits them into a fund that can then be plowed back into the district's businesses. Those dollars “can pay for infrastructure and pay employers directly for meeting certain investment benchmarks,” says Ron Walker, president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation.

The city also benefits from the kind of positive feedback loop common among industry clusters. “I think the growing presence of a diverse set of life-science firms stimulates even more such firms to either set up operations here or to expand if they're already here,” Conover says. “That's one of the key principles of cluster-based development: The more related industries in a cluster there are in a region, the more attractive it becomes to such firms, because of the growing, experienced labor pool, availability of essential services and infrastructure, presence of supporting firms, etc.”

Not that Bloomington doesn’t still sigh at those who equate Indiana with one vast conservative corn desert, and recruiting outside talent can be challenging. “People don’t think of Indiana as having all this cultural attraction,” said George Telthorst, director of the Center for the Business of Life Sciences at the Kelley School. “Many people on the coast think of Indiana as the great flyover.” Maybe that’s why Indiana puts a lot of stock into recruiting and training local workers. The state has retained a strong base of manufacturing talent, and higher-ed institutions such as Indiana University and Ivy Tech Community College ensure a steady pipeline of new employees.

Today, Bloomington may be riding high, but it’s also a place that has witnessed firsthand the “creative destruction” of the manufacturing industry. As late as 1990 Bloomington was proclaimed “the color TV capital of the world,” home of the first and largest color TV manufacturing factory on the planet. Then, after rolling out more than 65 million RCA TVs over six decades, the South Rogers Street factory ground to a halt in 1998 after Thomson Consumer Electronics relocated its assembly lines to Juarez, Mexico.

The RCA property didn’t languish long. Starting in 2004, it became home to Cook subsidiary Cook Pharmica’s state-of-the-art 900,000-square-foot pharmaceutical development and contract manufacturing facility. Bring your breakthrough drug therapies to Cook Pharmica and they’ll help develop, test, and manufacture them--up to 600 syringes a minute, 70 million a year. Or as the company website more succinctly puts it in a Bloomington-worthy motto, “From RCA to DNA.”

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[Image: Tischenko Irina via Shutterstock]