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Manitoba's health care muscles: leading the way with world-class people and products.

PHIL POETKER IS AN EXCITED YOUNG MAN. AT 32, HE HAS A HOT NEW PRODUCT ON the verge of making a big splash all over North America in the health care products field. In the workshop of his company, Motus Inc., located in an industrial strip mall in Winnipeg, Poetker grabs a weather-beaten scythe -- a tool which once harvested grain and is now more commonly seen in pictures of the grim reaper. The instrument has a long curved handle and two short grips attached at right-angles; grips which make the swinging motion smooth and effortless. Two years ago, after many hours of staring at the scythe, Poetker figured the old ways were best, and spent the next five months whittling plastic and testing various prototypes of detachable handles which can be fitted onto any straight handled instrument. There are two types now on the market -- a straight handle and a D-grip.

It sounds almost mundane until you consider the unnatural strain placed on the forward wrist when lifting a shovel full of snow or dirt. A D-grip half-way down the shovel handle makes pulling the load up much easier. The same help is available for brooms, rakes, hoes -- in fact all of the 120 million straight handled instruments sold annually in Canada. "The applicability to the movement of an aging population is universal," says Poetker, noting that many surveys show gardening to be the most popular activity of the elderly but they find the tools hard to use. "This is how we would like to revolutionize the use of straight handles," he says.

Although clearly a health care product, Motus is marketing the add-on handles in hardware stores because Poetker feels the segregation of health products in specialty shops is coming to an end as the population ages. "They're going to be everyday consumer products," he predicts.

As he worked on the frustrating task of making the idea a reality, Poetker got a lot of help from HIDI, the Manitoba government's Health Industry Development Initiative. Members of the tightly-knit government department provided a design grant, helped find medical applications for the handles and heaped on the encouragement required by all inventors.

HIDI began in 1988 and works "... to build clusters on the health industry infrastructure base and to foster globally competitive private enterprises in Manitoba." Stripped of the buzz-words, HIDI's mission is to attract health industry firms to the province and provide great jobs for the people who live here.

Manitoba has a lot to offer health care companies. A central location, a 24-hour airport in Winnipeg and direct rail access to the U.S. -- the only access between Thunder Bay and Vancouver. In addition, a majority of Canada's trucking firms are headquartered in the province, and border clearance into the U.S. is a breeze compared to the time wasting line-ups common in southern Ontario and B.C. The central time zone, sophisticated telecom network and bilingual workforce is proving attractive for firms wanting to set-up call centres. Above all, it's the quality of life which proves to be a major draw for companies looking to relocate. However, even with these advantages, wooing firms is not easy. Reg Ebbeling is the managing partner of HIDI. "The reception we get when we approach companies is usually skeptical, until they get here, because everyone else has the same pitch," he says. But during the past five years HIDI has overcome the skepticism of many firms.

Today more than 60 health care companies, research facilities and institutes are located in Manitoba. Since 1988 1,150 new jobs have been created in the sector accompanied by private and public investment totalling $500 million. Sales last year were $170 million. Ebbeling wants that growth to continue and points to 90 projects his department is currently working on.

The government people working on these projects are very familiar with the requirements and demands of the private sector. Ebbeling boasts that his seven-man staff have an accumulated 150 years of experience in the health care field, outside of government. This kind of background has produced a user friendly government department. "We try to operate like a private enterprise," says Ebbeling, who worked in pharmaceuticals prior to becoming a civil servant 21 years ago. "We try to get through the government maze and work with the client."

Interested clients can expect help from HIDI in finding financing, getting key introductions, brochure production assistance and subsidized trips to trade shows where the deals are made. The staff also know the people already here in the substantial and rapidly developing health care industry. "Infrastructure is the key," says Ebbeling. "People need to talk with and work with people |in similar fields~."

The value of networking is why HIDI devised a strategy of encouraging "clusters" in Manitoba. A cluster is a group of researchers, inventors, marketers and manufacturers all working in a similar field. HIDI is working to build six clusters -- pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, aging and rehabilitation, information and communication systems for the health care sector, and environmental health.

Just like a suburban shopping mall which tries to attract a major national retailer as an anchor -- which will then bring in many other smaller shops -- HIDI's clusters also have anchors. In the diagnostics cluster, the centre of action is the National Research Council's Biodiagnostics Institute. Right now the Institute, located on Ellice Avenue, is in the final stages of a $7-million capital improvements overhaul, one-third of the $21-million start-up investment, with a scheduled opening slated for next month. By then 100 staff will be on the payroll, 80 per cent of them scientists hired from around the world.

Dr. Ian C. P. Smith is Director General of the Institute. His voice ripples with excitement as he describes what's coming. "We will be bringing more equipment to Winnipeg such as has never been seen in one building anywhere in the world." That equipment will include magnetic resonance imagers, instruments to conduct magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which takes biochemical snapshots of cells in the body, and other hardware which allows researchers to conduct infrared spectroscopy.

Elsewhere in the Institute's labs, people will be looking for ways to develop three dimensional ultrasound; helping them with that -- and other research -- is a huge mainframe computer. Feeding off the mainframe will be numerous powerful workstations.

"The goal of the Institute is to do good research and to make money," says Smith, adding that the centre is keen to develop links with private sector manufacturers. In fact a British medical firm is considering an operation in Winnipeg in order to be close to the research anticipated at the Institute. "This should be a massive drawing card," predicts Smith.

Another potential draw for health companies considering Winnipeg is the new federal virology laboratory. The first stages of construction have begun in the city and, when the doors open in 1997, it will employ between 100-140 people. The $140-million centre will be the first in the world to combine animal and human disease control in the same facility. Dr. Allan Ronald, Head of Infectious Diseases at St. Boniface Hospital and recently appointed the Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, says the new lab will put Winnipeg on the map. "By the year 2010 we'll be in the news because of the exciting findings or because an outbreak here or there is being investigated by the crew from Winnipeg." Ronald says the labs will investigate anything causing an infection in Canada and the results of that research will be invaluable for corporations.

The Canadian Aging and Rehabilitation Product Development Corporation (ARCOR) also works closely with private firms. The three-year-old centre is the hub of the "aging cluster" and develops ideas into products to enable the elderly or the handicapped to live independently. With a staff of 17, ARCOR takes ideas and turns them into working prototypes. Those ideas come from inside and outside the organization, according to Laurie Johnston, president and CEO. But, he adds, once a product is ready for market the private sector takes over. "We are strictly a think-tank." Although currently supported by government funds, ARCOR is moving towards self-sufficiency by retaining royalties from its inventions. Recent successes include a new patient transfer device which gently lowers someone into a bath and a completely reconfigured wheelchair motor, about the size of a soup can, which drops into the axle of a wheelchair. A British firm snapped up the rights to the motor and the first 5,000 models start rolling off the assembly line this fall.

The cluster centres aren't the only enterprises doing well in Manitoba. Numerous health care companies are thriving and even expanding despite the persistent recession.

Lorne Seier is president of Vita Health Company Ltd., a firm started by his father in 1936. Back then patent medicines sold by mail order and herbs were popular -- the company boomed. Today, the senior Mr. Seier wouldn't recognize his creation. The huge, recently expanded manufacturing facility and warehouse located in the St. Boniface Industrial Park produces millions of vitamins, nutritional supplements and analgesics every year. The pills are shipped all over the country and up-to-the-minute storage systems mean 90 per cent of all orders are shipped out of the plant within 24 hours. Sales last year were $21 million.

"At various times we looked at moving to another location but we found Winnipeg's a pretty good place to be," says Seier. Topping the list of reasons to stay put, Seier lists a high quality labor pool and few labor disputes. "They're committed to Manitoba and they're not jumping around." In addition, Vita Health gets better shipping service, and prices, than its competitors in Vancouver and Toronto. Since many trucks "deadhead" out of Winnipeg, attractive "backhaul" rates are available to major North American centres for manufacturers in the city.

Another thriving Winnipeg health manufacturing firm is Arjo-North Inc. President Ed Waggoner joined the company in 1974, four years after it opened, and broadened sales from Manitoba to the nation. The firm makes sophisticated bathing and lift and transfer devices used to move patients in hospitals and nursing homes. It also manufactures a line of skin care products and disinfectants. Nine years ago Arjo-North was purchased by a Swedish company and today sales are what Waggoner describes as a "healthy" $14 million a year in Canada, the U.S. and several European countries.

"Manitoba is the best kept secret in Canada," says Waggoner. He is particularly pleased with the cooperation and assistance Arjo-North has received from the provincial and federal governments. In the early 1980s the company received a grant to expand to a new plant. By 1987 that facility was too small and the company moved again, with the help of another grant. A year ago Arjo-North finished another expansion aided by an interest-free loan. All this assistance totals $1.5 million and Waggoner says without it "I believe we wouldn't have been able to do it."

South west of Winnipeg in the town of Morden is a 3M Canada manufacturing plant. In addition to making an anti-corrosion fluid used to protect oil and gas pipes, the 70-employee plant makes a wide range of health care products which are shipped around the world. Heart monitoring electrodes, surgical and dental masks, medical tapes and a line of orthotic braces are made at the facility which is the most successful location in the company. "We've won business from other 3M plants," says Kevin Eryou, plant manager. "The main thing which makes this plant outstanding is the employees. The work ethic is very strong and the education level is good." He also cites the support of government and the central location which makes the plant convenient to customers, raw material suppliers and other 3M plants. "Since 1986 |when health care was added to the Morden plant's activities~ we've expanded rapidly and with every responsibility we've given to the employees, they've risen to the challenge."

When asked to describe the various types of medical research going on in Winnipeg, Dr. Terry Hogan merely chuckled and after a pause pointed out "it covers the gamut of possible activities." Hogan is vice-president of Research and Extension Programs for the University of Manitoba. He says with a major medical school, two teaching hospitals, large research foundations and private facilities, the range covers most major areas of medicine. He adds most researchers are very open to the idea of technology transfer. In fact Hogan and other scientists in Winnipeg speak easily of commercialization and "making money" -- concepts quite foreign to academics even a few years ago.

"We're trying to get more support for researchers and much of that will come from the private sector," he says. "Here there's the sense that it's a healthy thing for people who have the same end in sight to be cooperating.

"With the one large urban centre in Manitoba, people tend to know each other well and this leads to getting the leadership in the major institutions committed to cooperation rather than competition."

With an atmosphere of cooperation and commitment to the health industry, future growth appears to be unlimited.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Manitoba Business Ltd.
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Author:Ryan, Branwell
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:2190
Previous Article:Smith Carter.
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