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What You Didn’t Know: Memphis, TN’s Biosciences Industry is Booming

With a robust medical device and research sector, Greater Memphis flexes its bioscience muscle

By Jason Zasky on November 8, 2017

Memphis, TN
Memphis / Courtesy of University of Tennessee Health Science Center

Greater Memphis takes a back seat to no region as a bioscience powerhouse.

“We have a long history and understanding of orthopedics and how to build devices, and we have capital, entrepreneurs and a passion to help people,” says Steven Bares, president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks, an organization focused on creating jobs, companies and investments in bioscience through a variety of accelerators, incubators and training programs. 

The industry has achieved a critical mass in Greater Memphis, with 1,100 companies employing more than 52,000 workers. Shelby County is considered the second-largest orthopedic manufacturing center in the U.S. 

Greater Memphis was ranked among the top 10 most affordable cities in which to operate a biomedical business, according to the Boyd Co., a major business consulting firm. It’s no surprise then that Greater Memphis is home to a growing number of medical device giants, including Medtronic, Smith & Nephew, Wright Medical, and MicroPort Orthopedics, as well as biotech startups like Novalign, Vaxent, Cagenix, Argentis Pharmaceutica, Meridian Life Science. 

Local biotech firms create services and products that range from custom-fit orthopedics, prosthetics, eye tissue storage, vaccines, stints, veterinary research and specialty pharmaceuticals.

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 Facilities, Research and Education

industry is backed by a collection of world-class research assets. Consider UT-Baptist Research Park, a large and growing bioscience research campus complemented by close-by resources that include St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC).

“The kind of people we hire are doing something different or finding an interesting niche in their field,” says Dr. David Stern, executive dean and vice chancellor for health affairs at UTHSC. “We try to find people that think they can have a special impact and make a difference in health care in our region.”

That same spirit is exemplified elsewhere in the community, which features standout health-care systems like those of Baptist Memorial Health Care and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. The Medical Education & Research Institute, a nonprofit medical teaching and training bioskills lab, offers hands-on educational courses for doctors and other health-care professionals

Memphis Bioworks

Memphis Bioworks plays a vital role in the development of local industry, identifying needs and working to fill them. The organization has been instrumental in creating jobs and helping train and place workers, While also encouraging investment and facilitating entrepreneurial development.

Since the organization was founded in 2001 it has been responsible for about $400 million in investment and approximately 2,000 jobs.

“And a whole industry sector that is growing, as well as the recognition of new opportunities in both agriculture and biologistics,” Bares says.

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Greater Memphis Medical Device Council

For the local bioscience industry to realize its full potential looking out to mid-century, it will need a readily available supply of talent. That’s where the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council (GMMDC) comes in.

Established in 2014, the GMMDC is a collaborative involving upward of two dozen biomedical member companies working together to help create an educational structure that produces graduates who meet industry needs. That work includes aligning with local high schools and colleges to develop and implement curricula that will ensure a steady supply of workers capable of filling mission-critical manufacturing positions. 

Gene Baker, chairman of the council and a top executive at medical device maker Smith & Nephew, notes that local manufacturers are looking, in particular, for packagers, finishers and machinists, the latter of which need to know how to operate sophisticated metalworking equipment. 

“Even though we are competitors in the labor market we have been able to put aside our competitive differences to do something together to help the Memphis community,” Baker says. 

That level of cooperation is anything but unusual in Memphis. 

“We want all of our companies to do well and that’s one of the reasons we are all collaborative and collegial with one another,” says Tommy Carls, vice president of research and development for Medtronic Spine & Biologics. “There is a pretty big ecosystem here that is important to Memphis and West Tennessee, but the products we develop have a global touch to them.” 

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