ATLANTA – Georgia may not be an official biotech or med-tech hotbed, but it's moving in that direction as demonstrated by the breadth of companies and researchers featured during this week's Georgia Life Sciences Summit 2008. And, despite venture capital funding difficulties in recent times, the state has seen steady growth with 300 life sciences companies calling the southern state home that now boasts nearly $8 billion in annual sales of 400 life science products.

Another sign of the times is that, for the first time, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (Washington) will bring its annual meeting here in 2009, an event that draws more than 20,000 attendees, said James Greenwood, BIO's president/CEO, who helped to kick off the Georgia event.

While device companies may play a smaller role in the Georgia sector, industry representatives pointed out that med tech is hot and, given demographics and growth of emerging technology, that trend is likely to continue. Like Silicon Valley in California or Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Georgia industry representatives are now touting the Innovation Crescent, a geographic region that extends from Atlanta to Athens, as a key area rich with a diverse concentration of new and mature companies as well as organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered in Atlanta.

"A big driver going forward for the device sector is demographics," said Al Lauritano, director of business development, BD Technologies (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina), during a session about medical devices in Georgia. "There's been continuing, record increases in venture capital invested in med tech, probably because of the lower risk compared to pharmaceutical and biotech developments. But payouts are smaller as many exits are under $100 million."

Lauritano predicted that med tech appears hot now, but he warned that diversification strategies are wise. "I see continued M&A opportunities not just because VCs want returns on their investments, but because companies such as BD are looked at as a growth company. Expect hurdles to rise as high-value med-tech products seek therapeutic-like claims. It's going to change the regulatory requirements for the sector. In the drive for growth, there's going to be the assumption of more risk."

While Lauritano's session focused specifically on medical device companies and even showcased three very different examples of firms that are thriving from their southeastern headquarters, the Life Science Summit overall included numerous mentions of advances in medical technology, despite the obvious focus on biotech.

For instance, in another session focused on up-and-coming life science companies in Georgia, all three emerging Atlanta-based companies were med-tech oriented, not biotech or pharmaceutical firms. They included MedShape Solutions, which is developing shape-memory materials for orthopedic devices, drug delivery systems maker AerovectRx and Icon Interventional Systems, which is developing new types of cardiovascular stents.

But each presenter pointed out that the only way they are going to distinguish their products from the pack is by innovation.

"Vascular intervention is a crowded space," said Jack Merritt, president/CEO at Icon. "It's a market in which Icon decided to choose a different path. We want to execute a disruptive change. We have a stent with the thinnest walls ever conceived. It results in a flexible platform and we believe it will result in better patient outcomes."

Icon's Nuloy stent system is formed from a new alloy, allowing the stent to be formed with a wall thickness of approximately one half that of conventional products but stronger, providing 41% chance of restenosis compared to the average 74% chance for other stents and a reduced chance of strut fracture. With preclinical work completed, the company is just now launching pivotal studies in Europe.

Then, an emerging company hopping on the orthopedics bandwagon is doing so with a twist. MedShape's memory materials are active solids capable of controlled shape change or strain recovery in response to external stimuli. The materials can be pre-programmed to respond to specific external stimuli, and the company has dubbed them as smart implant materials that will eventually be used in fracture management devices.

Given the aging population with bones that more easily fracture, the company has had good luck in getting funded because their concept is on target.

"We've had good success in obtaining funding and striking licensing deals," said Kurt Jacobus, MedShape's president/CEO, adding that his company's biggest challenge has been on the personnel and recruiting side.

"How do you find a way to keep clinicians engaged and provide enough freedom to see this job as an attractive opportunity? It took us a year to put in place a compensation and equity structure to make that happen," he said.

In another session on advances in neuroscience, a researcher from the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a collaboration between Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, pointed out that he sees neuroscience as a juncture of technology and applications, beyond the traditional pharmaceutical-only approach to therapy.

"We have great technology development that motivates new ways to do the science," said Stephen DeWeerth, PhD, whose work focuses on computational and robotic modeling of the neural control of movement.

"Neural interfacing allows us to reach in, stimulate and measure neural tissues. And we're looking to do that less invasively," he said.

DeWeerth pointed to a prime example of these advances in a company that was spun out of the local universities: Axion Biosystems (Atlanta) is developing technology that will allow scientists to directly interact with live brain or nerve tissue to provide information for diagnosis or treatment and even drug screening.