August 2, 2012 at 1:00 am

Oakland's Medical Main Street program makes gains

Gary Abusamra is president of Oxus America, which produces more user-friendly portable concentrators for people on oxygen in Rochester Hills. Oxus is evidence of the positive impact of Oakland County’s Medical Main Street program. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Oakland County's Medical Main Street remains more of a geographic abstraction than a clearly defined location such as the Silicon Valley in California or retailing's Miracle Mile in Chicago. But the county's 4-year-old effort to attract health care companies is gaining momentum as well as national and international attention.

Twenty-six companies have invested more than $220 million under Medical Main Street, retaining 947 jobs and adding 1,968 since 2008, according to the county.

This means the health care development focus has generated nearly 2,000 of the more than 26,000 jobs created by the county's Emerging Sectors diversification program since 2004, even though Medical Main Street has existed for half of that time. And the county is working with nine companies on projects, hoping they will agree to invest $1.4 billion and create more than 200 jobs, said Irene Spanos, the county's director of economic development and commercial affairs.

"We've surpassed all expectations in terms of job creation and branding," Spanos said. "When companies are requesting to be placed in 'the Medical Main Street region,' we know we're doing something right."

Carole Rich, principal of commercial real estate broker Lee & Associates in Southfield, said she met recently with three Italian companies that want to open facilities in Oakland County, including a medical-device manufacturer that likely will locate here.

"And they wouldn't know about it or be thinking about it," Rich said, "if it weren't due to the efforts of Medical Main Street."

If there is a discernible emerging "main street," it may be along the M-59 corridor near Auburn Hills. One of the companies there is the Oxus America facility south of M-59 in Rochester Hills. Oxus manufactures portable concentrators that provide oxygen much more conveniently than bulky tanks and has grown to employ more than 20 people since its start two years ago.

Networking help

Michigan Economic Development authorities helped with a tax break; economic development outfit Ann Arbor Spark invested in Oxus America; and Oakland County kicked in with a training grant.

But Medical Main Street provided specific help "in terms of getting firmer grounding in the challenges of the medical business and in working together with other companies in the state to reinforce the infrastructure that's needed," said Oxus founder Gary Abusamra.

"Especially with small start-ups, you need to network and connect to resources outside the company," he said. "We don't have the same types of internal resources that a multibillion-dollar international company might have."

Medical Main Street has helped bring trade shows and other events to the region to showcase the medical industry, Abusamra said. Inno-vention, a trade show and conference this Oct. 4 at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, will be a major one.

The Oxus technology was originally developed by a team led by Abusamra within a medical-research group at Delphi, the automotive supplier, and licensed from Oxus, a South Korean firm. The deep pool of engineering and manufacturing talent in the area is an advantage Medical Main Street can promote compared with other health-technology clusters around the nation.

This edge is helping JHP Pharmaceuticals expand its work force in Rochester to to 350 people in the next year from about 330 now. While the Parsippany, N.J.-based company is manufacturing in Oakland County mainly because it took over an existing Parke-Davis pharmaceuticals facility in 2007, CEO Stuart Hinchen said Medical Main Street is increasingly relevant to his firm.

"It helps us with recruitment," Hinchen said. "It starts to move them away from the stereotype that Michigan and Detroit are only about auto manufacturing."

Area advantages

Another advantage for medical companies is Metro Detroit's ethnic diversity, which can help provide thorough clinical trials of drugs and medical devices.

The region's five major health systems provide another boost.

"Most regions have a single health system that supports their region or economy," said Matthew Gibb, Oakland County deputy executive. Other areas include Mayo Clinic, anchor of a big medical-technology cluster in Rochester, Minn., and the Cleveland Clinic.

Both Henry Ford and Beaumont health systems lately have increased their focus to commercialize their doctors' research. And St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac has improved prospects for at least two Medical Main Street start-ups

One is Orion Therapeutics in Troy that has developed potent antioxidant-based nutritional supplements for hospital patients. Another has created an innovative way to clean hospital rooms.

"It's a local company, an interesting technology, and an innovative thing using ionic products that are safe and effective and allow you to turn rooms around more quickly," said Jack Weiner, president of the Pontiac hospital and a board member of Medical Main Street.

When Oakland University in Rochester has its new medical school fully operating in a few years, "the economic impact in the region is estimated to be $3 billion a year, conservatively,"Gibb said.

But achieving the goal of becoming a global leader in health care will take time, Gibb said, adding that "Silicon Valley wasn't built overnight."