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Making the Medical-Device Push

Lowell Sun photo by Julia Malakie
Participants of Tuesday's Middlesex 3 Coalition meeting got a chance to tour UMass Lowell's new Emerging Technologies Innovation Center, at the corner of University Avenue and the VFW Highway, after the meeting. Above is a look from outside a "clean room" used for photolithography processes.

Lowell Sun
By Evan Lips

LOWELL -- Growing the region's budding life-sciences industry involves more than simply coaxing businesses to trade Cambridge space for that in the Merrimack Valley -- it's also about convincing them to stick around. 

Rick Geoffrion, president and CEO of Tewksbury-based Mitralign, said Tuesday his medical-device business is in its clinical stages of Food and Drug Administration permitting but is already in the fast lane in Europe, where its product is expected to hit the market in early 2014. 

Mitralign, a 45-employee company in the process of developing a catheter-based system aimed at providing an alternative to open-heart surgery, is growing. In October, it collected a $1.9 million injection of equity funding. 

Simply put, someday soon Mitralign will need a bigger building than its current digs at 3 Highwood Ave. 

"We need to think about moving but we've made the decision to stay here (in the area)," Geoffrion told a room full of life-science industry power players who gathered at UMass Lowell for a conference organized by the Middlesex 3 Coalition. "It's a sweet spot." 

The Middlesex 3 Coalition is a regional collaboration of public and private leaders from Lowell, Billerica, Chelmsford, Bedford and Burlington. It's tasked with helping local businesses flourish. UMass Lowell has been a partner in that mission, especially when it comes to life sciences, university spokeswoman Christine Gillette said earlier this week. 

Gillette pointed to UMass Lowell's Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property, which she said helps move innovative technologies from school laboratories into businesses. 

Virtually every business leader at Tuesday's conference stressed the important of available "wet lab and clean space," referring to areas home to critical experimental research. 

Geoffrion's description of the Merrimack Valley as a "sweet spot" for life-science businesses comes from a combination of its affordable location and access to top talent from UMass Lowell. 

Bob Buckley, senior partner at Boston-based Riemer & Braunstein LLP and a Middlesex 3 Coalition board member, said he was "amazed" during a recent visit to Europe when he heard UMass Lowell come up in conversations in the same breath as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Peter Abair, director of economic development and global affairs for the Massachusetts BioTech Council, said his Cambridge office space only became available when the Dyax Corp., a biopharmaceutical company, moved to Burlington. 

For local life-science companies to stay in the Merrimack Valley and continue growing, it will take not only work space ideal for build-outs, but also capital. 

Nancy Briefs, CEO of InfoBionic, which specializes in the development of wireless cardiac monitors, said the region's labor pool is "phenomenal" but added area start-ups "could use a little more active involvement from investors." 

One important component, according to Briefs, is convincing serious investors to look outside of Boston. 

InfoBionic moved from Cambridge to Lowell in 2011. She said the company needed to surround itself with "like-minded entrepreneurs" and an "ecosystem" of other medical-device companies. 

Entrepreneurs, however, cannot function without seed money. One participant at Tuesday's conference asked Briefs about how to lure more investors to consider Greater Lowell. 

Briefs suggested keeping the lines of communication channels between areas open. 

"If you meet with someone, tell them about the other great company down the road," she said.