Leveraging Michigan’s medical device technology industry to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine

Courtney Overbey

Friday, January 15, 2021

How support of the state's manufacturing companies helped distribute the fastest produced vaccine in history.

We have been at war with the coronavirus for a year and, on December 11, we entered a new phase of battle when the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, BNT162b2, against COVID-19 was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use

With Michigan ranking top 10 for its medical device manufacturing workforce of nearly 13,000 people, it was no surprise when all eyes were on Michigan to witness the historic journey of the first trucks carrying the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine departing the Pfizer plant in Portage, located in Kalamazoo County. Nor was it a shock when in early 2021, Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing (GRAM) in Grand Rapids was also chosen to help manufacture the Johnson & Johnson SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, underscoring the national recognition that Michigan’s ecosystem continues to earn.

By leveraging Michigan’s existing medical device anchor companies and research assets, the state was able to produce and distribute the fastest produced vaccine in history. Yet, this is not Michigan’s first experience leading in times of war. Known as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during WWII, Michigan companies mobilized to produce 4 million engines and 200,000 mobile units. Detroit, with two percent of the U.S. population, made 10 percent of the materials for the war. Since the start of the pandemic, the state once again mobilized to deploy its talent and manufacturing expertise to contribute to today’s “war” effort.

During the early stages of the pandemic, there was a disruption in the supply chain causing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Michigan manufacturers stepped up to quickly retool production lines to make everything from ventilators to hand sanitizers. And now Pfizer, part of Michigan’s $28 billion life science industry, has produced and distributed the first of three vaccines from one of the most technically advanced sterile injectable pharmaceutical facilities in the world.

And while the COVID-19 vaccines are making headlines, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) supports a robust ecosystem of companies tapping into the state’s technology and manufacturing know-how as well as the concentration of talent available here in Michigan.

  • In Plymouth, Celsee is working to dramatically change the way scientists understand disease progression in rare cells by monitoring the human immune system and analyzing pathways through its innovative product, the Genesis System. Before it achieved a successful exit in April 2020, Celsee set up shop in the MEDC-supported Michigan Life and Science Innovation Center, a bioscience incubator to collaborate and grow its company in its early days. After later receiving support from the Ann Arbor SPARK SmartZone and the Small Business Development Center Teach Team, Celsee was able to create a name for itself in the single-cell analysis arena, having filed for more than 60 U.S. patents between 2011 and 2019.
  • Fifth Eye, a startup company based in Ann Arbor has developed a technology to provide doctors and nurses a warning about impending catastrophic health events hours before they happen, helping to save lives. Along the way, the MEDC has supported its mission and growth through programs including the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program (MTRAC) which helped Fifth Eye meet critical milestones as it built out the technology and prepared for spin out as a startup company from the University of Michigan, support through the Small Business Development Center and an oversubscribed $2.36 million Series Seed round, co-led by Invest Michigan and Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center (BRCC) —, partners funded by MEDC — which enabled the company to close the first portion of a $11.5 million Series A funding round in less than 12 months. Today, the team is completing the product development, preparing for U.S. FDA clearance and working with potential early-adopting partners who are interested in being at the forefront of health care improvements. Fifth Eye's success is in part a result of the state's strong research institutions, which act as steadfast partners in bringing technologies to market. 
  • Michigan is home to Stryker, a top 10 medical device company in the U.S. (by total revenue) developing medical products based on patients’ changing needs. In 2018, the Michigan Strategic Fund (MSF) approved a $2.6-million Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant. In addition to the 253,000-square-foot expansion in Portage, the global medical technology manufacturer is expected to add 260 jobs by end of 2025. The investment and creation of new jobs points to Stryker’s commitment as a dynamic force in the state’s medical technology industry.

In addition to Pfizer, GRAM, Fifth Eye and Stryker, Michigan is home to 383 medical device firms, with the Southwest region of Michigan having five times more workers than the U.S. average in the medical device sector. For companies looking for a new home, there is no doubt that Michigan is uniquely positioned to provide mentorship, workforce needs and R&D facilities to create your business’s success. To learn more about Michigan’s medical device technology industry, visit michiganbusiness.org.

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