CLEVELAND (June 18, 1:15 p.m. ET) — Northeast Ohio must be drinking its milk, because the region's orthopedics industry is growing up to be big and strong.
Experts say the surge in activity in the field, which focuses on the study of the human musculoskeletal system, is due largely to the melding of the region's expertise in advanced materials and health care.
Basically, Northeast Ohio is good at building stuff and then sticking it inside people to fix their ills. That's how it was characterized by Dr. Thomas Graham, chief innovations officer at Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the health care juggernaut's business development arm.
Dr. Graham, who also is the Clinic's vice chairman for orthopedic surgery, said the orthopedics field “is a very big tent.”
“A lot of people can convene in it, and I think that's very exciting when engineers can speak to surgeons, therapists and investors.”
The region's growth in orthopedics is accelerating so quickly that the Clinic's annual innovations conference, scheduled for Oct. 29-31, is focused on the field and aptly is titled, “Innovative to the Bone.”
Evidence of the growth is seen in the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron earlier this year spinning out its first company, APTO Orthopaedics. A consortium of local hospitals and universities — dubbed the “orthopedic research cluster” — also continues to draw money for research and faculty hires from the state's Third Frontier technology development program.
“In many ways, we're getting close to being recognized as having one of the strongest growing consortiums in orthopedics,” said Walter Horton, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) in Rootstown, one of the cluster's members. “We have significant clinical care, significant research funding and significant innovations.”
It's in our bones
While it seems as if there's been a flurry of activity in Northeast Ohio in orthopedics over the last two or three years, the region's roots in the field go back decades, according to Baiju Shah, president of BioEnterprise Corp., a Cleveland nonprofit that assists health care companies in the region.
Shah said the region's success in orthopedics was best recognized by AcroMed Corp., a Cleveland-area startup that specialized in spinal implants. Depuy Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, acquired the company for $325 million in 1998 and eventually moved it to Massachusetts.
However, a chunk of AcroMed's talent pool remained in Cleveland, planting the seeds for further growth in the field. For one, entrepreneurs Chuck Birchall Jr. and James Kuras, both former AcroMed employees, formed AxioMed Spine Corp., a spinal implant company in Garfield Heights that continues to draw venture dollars. The company recently secured $5 million in equity financing to close a $20 million Series D financing round.
Randy Theken, another Northeast Ohio entrepreneur, also harnessed some of that former AcroMed talent in his founding of a handful of spinal implant companies throughout the 1990s that he organized under the Theken name. Integra LifeSciences Holdings Corp. of Plainsboro, N.J., bought the companies in 2008 but, unlike Depuy, kept them in the region to retain the existing talent, according to Theken.
Even with the heap of existing talent, local research institutions are leveraging state dollars to draw new experts to the region.
Using Third Frontier money, NEOMED recently hired skeletal biologist Fayez Safadi from Temple University in Philadelphia, whom Dr. Horton said brought with him $2 million in federal research money. The medical university also recruited Rebecca German, a biologist, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to join the orthopedic research cluster.
The University of Akron, a recognized leader in polymer science and biomaterials, is looking to apply more of its research to orthopedics, said Ajay Mahajan, associate dean for research at its College of Engineering. Mahajan already has supervised a team of students that go by the business team name “Telkesis” that developed a type of spinal implant he contends could open a market worth a “couple hundred million dollars.”
Dr. Stephen Fening, the Austen BioInnovation Institute's director of orthopedic devices, said hospitals are trying to grow their orthopedic services in anticipation of a surge of baby boomers. However, he said there's a need to continue building the region's research capabilities in orthopedics — one of the reasons for the birth of the institute.
In the last year alone, Dr. Fening said the Austen BioInnovation Institute has generated more than 60 inventions in orthopedics.
“Where we will make our mark is in translational orthopedic research, which is research that impacts patients rapidly,” he said.