Collaboration can be an effective tool for plastics companies that want to tackle the medical-device market.
Jeff Applegate, president of Blackwell Plastics Inc. since 2003, knows that firsthand. He founded Gulf Coast Medical Device Manufacturers, a Houston-area group formed to help local companies work together.
At the recent Plastics in Medical Devices 2012 conference in Westlake, Applegate talked about the partnership, its record and other companies' experiences in collaboration.
He and Blackwell — a Houston-based injection molder and extruder of engineered thermoplastics — had collaborated with customers, suppliers and competitors in conventional ways such as outsourcing agreements, social media or being active in trade groups like the Society of Plastics Engineers and Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors.
But the impetus for the local medical-device group was the realization that Texas Medical Center in Houston was spending about $2 billion annually on research and development; and while many of the projects eventually were being commercialized, few were being developed in the city, Applegate said at the June 12-13 conference.
“We got together and we said we're going to change that,” he said. “So we started meeting in each other's facilities, getting outside our comfort zone. Going into the medical center. meeting the different organizations and associations.
“For about 41/2 years now, we've been meeting once a month.” Members also include sheet-metal fabricators, computer boards companies, designers, regulatory specialists — “whatever you would need to commercialize a medical device,” he said.
“I can speak personally about five or six different medical devices that we've been able to commercialize,” Applegate said. He feels the model could be duplicated in other cities.
He also cited examples of collaboration that are a bit more unusual:
* Synthecon Inc. was a Houston company trying to grow tissues in three dimensions for tissue engineering and stem-cell culture applications. But the firm found that cells grown in a petri dish settled in flat layers, and its efforts to grow them in bioreactors resulted in turbulence that damaged the cells.
However, since the company was located in Houston, it discovered that NASA was working on a similar problem — the space agency was trying to test cell cultures using the benefits of microgravity. The government scientists discovered that by rotating the walls of the bioreactor, they could create a suspended environment without turbulence.
Thanks to their collaborative efforts, Synthecon was able to license the NASA technology, helping the company to survive and grow, Applegate said.
“Great example of collaboration from two different industries. You've got the space industry and the medical-device industry, and what they were able to do together,” he said.
* Cooperation between cardiovascular medicine and the energy industry has also paid off in Houston, with a conference called Pumps & Pipes.
As a result of the collaboration, Applegate said oil-field engineers from Cameron International Corp. helped surgeons from the Texas Heart Institute create a control system for an artificial heart that could manage the pressure and flow of blood needed for the body.
But collaboration doesn't have to take a firm that far outside its comfort zone. Applegate said Blackwell Plastics works with its own resin suppliers, including Eastman Chemical Co., DuPont Co. and Ticona, on collaborative efforts across its supply chain.
“These are trusted relationships with guys that are out in the field developing applications,” Applegate said.
“We've co-developed materials together. We've shared product development resources … made joint calls together,” he said.
The suppliers have also helped his company to take products and designs created for other industries — for example sealing surfaces in the food and beverage market — and applied them to other sectors, like the lighting industry.