The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds the largest portion of public-sector health research in the U.S., and biomedical research globally. The NIH has played an integral role in the success of Medical Alley for the last 40 years, funding significant basic research projects with healthcare leaders at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic. Some of this funding has flowed into the state in the form of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants that fund basic and specialized disease-state research. NIH is responsible for directly stimulating private industry which expands opportunities for research and development. NIH funding has helped to establish the United States as a global leader in medical research and innovation. Minnesota has directly benefited from this program to the tune of $2.8B in the last 5 years.
One of Minnesota’s NIH success stories can be found at St. Paul based Minnetronix. President and CEO Rich Nazarian said, “Minnetronix was born out of an NIH-funded program.” In 1996, Minnetronix, a then eight-employee company, developed the software-driven controller for the first fully implantable artificial heart. The NIH-funded program was a partnership between Minnetronix, 3M, and Penn State and the research directly tied to that program established Minnetronix as a key player in the ventricular assist device (VAD) space. Today, the company employees nearly 300 Minnesotans and is a highly regarded development partner for the medical device industry offering design, development and manufacturing services. The company continues to grow and has expanded to include in-house innovation that has been awarded over $5 million in SBIR grants.
The company is currently developing new technologies in the neuro interventional space. Unfortunately, while some of these patient groups have critical healthcare needs, they are relatively small, underserved populations. NIH funding has been vital in furthering Minnetronix’ efforts to bring life-enhancing therapies to patients in these smaller markets. SBIR’s ensure continued development of therapies that other companies may be forced to forego due to the narrow business opportunity. Nazarian also pointed out that without the early work of the NIH in basic research, “we could not have the therapies that we have today.” NIH established a bedrock in biomedical research that is now a catalyst for new innovation in the U.S.
The shift in the Minnetronix business model to include more in-house innovation is not unique to this company. In fact, the Medical Alley Association has increasingly seen more companies expand their portfolios to include additional offerings as a result of company innovation. Accidental discoveries or improved technologies may have been shelved in the past, but today are being pushed out into the market in order for companies to continue to diversify in a post-2008 recession era. Companies are able to supplement their current R&D investments with additional monies from NIH to develop promising technologies and create more value in the industry. NIH funding “reduces the disincentive to do new things by helping to bridge the gap to invest in innovation,” said Minnetronix COO Jeremy Maniak.
Minnetronix attributes much of their success in creating NIH-funded technologies to partnerships with academic institutions who have the institutional grant-writing knowledge and share their own discoveries and expertise. Minnetronix brings to the application significant project management experience as well as deep expertise in developing medical technologies and therapies. Minnetronix will continue to explore other synergies with NIH and continue to collaborate with academic institutions.
A strong NIH budget is critical for the U.S. to continue being the leading innovator in the world. NIH funding is necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive in a world where more and more countries are investing in biomedical research. The knowledge that has been created by NIH funding is not just embodied in the new drugs, devices and therapies that have come out of these investments, but a wide range of goods and equipment, new procedures and new treatments. The Medical Alley Association applauds the House of Representatives for increasing NIH funding in current legislation. However, as the Senate contemplates NIH funding, we hope they can support a similar increase. Supporting these funding initiatives as well as continue to support Small Business Innovation Research Grants mean that projects like those being developed at Minnetronix and other Medical Alley companies can continue to enrich Minnesota’s health technology industry.