STUTTGART, Germany — Innovation is more than a word in Germany; it is an active force in the country's economy.
Tinkering with technology, stretching materials and re-engineering each part of every product has built a powerhouse that produces more medical devices by sales volume than France, the UK, and Spain combined.
Today, as Germany faces record unemployment and a collapsing auto industry, the nation is relying on the consistent past performance of its companies in what it hopes is the recession-proof medical technology sector.
MedTec 2009, Europe's largest event dedicated to medical manufacturing, is not a product show so much as an industrial process exposition.
Endless rows of stands dedicated to machining surgical steel, crafting high performance ceramics, or laser cutting complex nano-geometries is reminder of the complexity of components that make up medical devices.
Among the German giants, it was an Irish company that was stealing the show with an advanced biocompatible electroactive polymer (EAP) called Micromuscle.
Using an electrical current of between one to two volts, the polymer can be stimulated to either bend in a predetermined direction or to release an embedded drug.
Micromuscle can give controlled movement to guidewires, catheters, balloons and microsurgical tools for navigating through arteries and precision delivery of a therapeutic.
"We are still playing with the architecture," said Dermot O'Reilly of the innovation center at Creganna (Galway, Ireland).
"It is all about the geometry of the piece that is designed that determines the shape when the current is applied, for example, creating a hinge."
Reversing the electrical charge will reverse the effect.
Micromuscle works on the micron scale, he said with a 50 micron thick layer, for example, that can be expanded to 70 microns, though its length and width are measured in millimeters.
"We are still two years away from having a product on the showroom floor," he said, "but there is a very high interest" from Johnson & Johnson (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Boston Scientific (Natick, Massachusetts) and Edwards LifeSciences (Irvine, California), for example.
The drug release action can be passive, allowing the onboard pharmaceutical to dissolve, "which is not hugely special, but still very useful," he said.
But applying an electrical current can activate a controlled release of a drug, "for example on the tip of a device like a catheter, which is a very special effect."
Creganna announced the acquisition of the Micromuscle technology in early February, though according to Micromuscle AB (Linköping, Sweden), it has held the rights since October 2008, when that company collapsed after eight years of development work due to the exit of a venture capital fund.
The discovery of groundbreaking electroactive polymers (EAP) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000.
Creganna has retained the engineers and technical staff from Micromuscle to conduct a technology transfer and is engaged with former customers of Micromuscle to continue development projects incorporating the EAP technology.
The company has manufacturing facilities in Marlborough, Massachusetts, as well as in Galway.
Creganna specializes in the design and manufacturing of delivery devices for minimally invasive therapies with catheters and more recently specialty needles.
Alan Crean, director of business development, said the technology fits with the current Creganna offering and position and then adds "exciting new design possibilities."
In cardiology and percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA), where Creganna currently works, guide wires, leads and catheters used to reach a targeted area inside blood vessels can become active, rather than passive, with enhanced micro control and steerability.
The micro movements are particularly well-suited to lower leg vessels and micro-dimensioned vessels in the brain.
Integration of the EAP technology into surgical devices will offers new functionality for controlled movement, which adds value to products, Crean said.
RFID for 2,500 sterilizations
Tracking reusable surgical instruments through reprocessing is a complicated and famously confusing process for hospitals.
Philippe Hermann, head of sales for MBBS (Cortaillod, Switzerland), says he has the answer in metal tags welded to the instruments.
Sounds simple, but the catch is that RFID signals could not be read through metal casings until now.
"We can read and write to an RFID tag through a metal jacket that can withstand 2,500 sterilization cycles, longer than the useful life of many surgical instruments," he said.
"It is our specialty and we have no competition," Hermann added.
The RFID tag is first welded with a laser inside a round metal housing and then the housing is welded to the surgical instrument.
"It is impossible to remove these tags," he said, "at least we have not yet found a way to do it. We can do it with titanium, if a customer requires it."
Started in 2000, MBBS is currently serving hospitals in France where, Hermann explains, regulations on surgical instrument traceability re the strictest in Europe requiring that an instrument can be tracked back through five previous patient procedures.
The company has 12 employees and works with hospitals in Lille and Besan on and two reference hospitals in Paris.
"Nurses in France have shown these tags make their work go three times faster, which is significant," Hermann said, adding that MBBS was recently selected for a project in France to tag 7,000 instruments
"Our strategy is to push in both directions, building hospital preference for the tags while also demonstrating the benefit to OEMs," he said.
MBBS has run pilot tests with DePuy (Warsaw, Indiana), an orthopedics subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.