Medical Technology Industry Gaining Life in Jacksonville; More and More See Virtues in Area and Decide to Set Up Shop Here

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH SKIDMORE, The Times-Union

Like liquid building to a boil over a Bunsen burner, the medical technology industry is heating up slowly in Jacksonville.

Medical products and services is one of the five targeted industries for the region, which means business and city leaders are trying to support existing business and draw more of its kind to the area. But like any experiment, the perfect results can be hard to achieve.

"It's a little bit more elusive target than some of the others, like finance or banking," said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. "The projects tend to be smaller and less frequent."

The Jacksonville area is already 14th in the nation among metropolitan areas in terms of medical employment, according to a study commissioned by the chamber. The medical technology market is estimated to grow in the coming years as a result of the population's aging and changes in medical treatment. Mallot said the chamber is targeting small businesses to grow this industry in Jacksonville because they are the most mobile and likely source of innovation in the industry.

City and business leaders are hoping to capture the attention of new businesses a number of ways. In addition to seeking out the hard-to-find companies, the chamber has brought trade publication journalists here, created support services for companies, sent direct mailings and participated in large industry trade shows. But one of the key strategies is using existing and emerging success stories to enhance the area's reputation inside the industry.

Recent big announcements from small companies like 14-employee Gyrx up to large organizations like the nearly-5,000 employee Mayo Clinic Jacksonville help to reinforce that Jacksonville is a hot area for medical technology companies to come. Business leaders like Mallot said existing businesses help generate a trained workforce, which city and business leaders say is one of the region's selling points. Other highlights include the area's good business climate, quality of life and abundance of research facilities.

"If we're talking about 'Can Jacksonville be a center for this industry?' Then the answer is categorically yes," said Al Rossiter, president and chief executive officer of Enterprise North Florida Corp. "All the ingredients are here. Can it be done between today and Thursday? No. It takes a longer-term strategy."

Peter Von Dyck, president and chief executive officer of medical device company Zassi Medical Evolutions, said his company had the luxury of choosing where to start when it picked Fernandina Beach in 1997. The company liked the site, in part because it is a developing area. Jacksonville wasn't saturated with other medical device businesses like Minneapolis or Boston so his company got more attention and access to employees. Although he didn't find all his employees locally, he was able to get skilled workers who were eager to relocate to Florida where the weather and cost of real estate is better.

"A lot of us want to ride a wave up, not ride a wave that crashed into the shore 20 years ago," Von Dyck said.

The company has 15 full-time employees and said it will triple that number in the next two and half years.

Other companies have based here for similar reasons. Rossiter said he is helping a California company. Ares Laboratories, establish here largely because the founder is set on living in Northeast Florida. The company is developing a coagulant that stops bleeding quickly based on research out of University of California Davis.

"Jacksonville tends to attract executives that are very experienced -- that are retired, semi-retired and can be a tremendous resource for starting companies," Rossiter said. "If Jacksonville can be successful surrounding [the founder] with the capital but also with the talented people . . . …