The Bioscience Boon
In the operating rooms of television medical dramas, it looks pretty easy. Just slip a tube down the patient’s throat to keep her breathing and save her life. But in reality, intubation is often a lot harder than that, requiring a combination of both precision and chance.
For starters, medical technology only gives an anesthesiologist a partial view of the trachea, so getting it right is a bit of a guess. And it gets even tougher if there’s an obstruction such as a tumor in the way. Go too far past the vocal cords and you can puncture a lung. Take too long and a patient can suffer dire consequences.
“We only have three minutes to reestablish oxygen delivery to the lungs,” explains Sean Runnels, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah. “If we don’t get it right, they are brain dead or have cardiac arrest.” With that in mind, Runnels set out to find a better way. His idea: Marry two existing pieces of technology into a single, slim color-coded device that makes the process easier for doctors and safer for patients.
In October, the intubation innovation will launch through Runnels’ new medical device company, Through the Cords. Built with a team assembled through the U’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, the device is the first significant innovation in intubation technology in 40 years, Runnels says.
It’s also an example of the kind of U-based medical innovation that has been changing lives for the better since the 1950s—think plastic catheter, Jarvik heart, the first artificial arm—and is now driving Utah’s economy in a dramatic way. Last year alone, companies in what’s broadly known as the life sciences industry (also referred to as bioscience) reported $10 billion in sales, pumped nearly $500 million in tax dollars into state government, and added jobs at a faster rate than any other segment of Utah’s economy.
These companies are using next-generation technology to make medical devices and equipment, produce drugs and pharmaceuticals, or do medical research, diagnostics, biomedical distribution, and more. “There’s such a strong need for the technologies being developed,” says Clark Cahoon of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), whose job exists to support the needs of the life sciences industry. “There’s so much going on, and it’s growing faster than anybody expected.”
So how fast is fast? When measured by job growth data from the industry trade association BioUtah, it’s pretty fast. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of life sciences jobs across the state grew by 25.4 percent, far faster than the national industry average of 5.9 percent, a recent California report shows.
One could chalk up the explosion in the sector to market forces or technology advancements that have helped flatten the path to discovery—and those things would be true. But it’s also something more: A sort of convergence of aptitude, opportunity, ingenuity, and institutional support that when combined with a Utah-born spirit of collaboration has people in education, government, and industry working toward common goals.
“The state is completely supportive and wants to work to decrease the number of barriers for the university, and the education system is evolving to provide the right environment for young people with ideas,” explains Keith Marmer, who runs the U’s Center for Technology & Venture Commercialization (TVC), which helps bring campus-driven invention to the marketplace. “It’s like a perfect storm.”
It’s no secret that Utah is a business-friendly place. Over the past decade, the state has been consistently named one of the best for business by Forbes magazine, and this year, it was ranked second best for startups by the financial website WalletHub. This climate has allowed Beehive State industries to flourish, and the life sciences sector is no exception. Over the past decade, its successes have grown into a bona-fide boon for Utah’s bottom line, pumping billions in taxes, private investment, grant funding, and higher-than-average wages into the economy.
It’s also drawing the attention of companies considering a relocation and adding additional value to Utah communities by fostering growth among indirect goods or services companies, including retailers and small manufacturing and construction firms. “We see a return on investment when we see these [life sciences] companies taking root here,” Cahoon adds. “There are no losers. When you draw this kind of industry and it’s successful economically, it makes for better jobs. It drives education programs. It helps the whole community.”
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