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Vaccines and Viruses: Best and worst of Minnesota medical industry in 2010

Minnesota can be an infuriating place to live and I’m not just talking about the generous heaps of snow Mother Nature has dumped on us in recent weeks.

The state is home to 20 Fortune 500 companies, a vibrant health-care economy and some very smart people. Those assets are both its strength and Achilles’ Heel. The latter because Minnesota tends to operate in a bubble, as if the well-defined rules of innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development somehow don’t apply to a state operating in the 21st century.

2010 proved to be a year of such contradictions: one step forward, one (or even two) steps back. So with this context in mind, I offer my list of Vaccine and Virus Awards to local newsmakers who defined this year for better or worse.

VACCINE — St. Jude Medical Inc.

2010 is the year when the company, which has long operated under the shadow of Medtronic Inc. and Boston Scientific Corp., really got its mojo going.

St. Jude posted double-digit sales gains in pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators, a category essentially written off by its competitors. The company, based in Little Canada, made several acquisitions, including its $1.3 billion purchase of AGA Medical.

For the year, St. Jude stock is up nearly 14 percent. By contrast, Medtronic and Boston Scientific shares are down 16 percent and 13 percent respectively.

VIRUS — Boston Scientific (based in Natick, Mass., but with major operations in Minnesota).

Its shares trade for less than the price of a movie ticket. ‘Nuff said.

VACCINE Sen. Kathy Saltzman and Rep. Tim Mahoney.

For years, the two doggedly pushed for an angel investment tax credit. The result? A historic, five-year, $60 million credit to help stimulate early-stage funding in local startups.

VIRUS Rep. Ann Lenczewski.

The soon-to-be (thank God) former chair of the state’s powerful House Tax Committee did everything she could to derail the angel credit, including commissioning a silly and bizarre report that promoted grants over credits. Good riddance to bad ideology.

VACCINE — Envoy Medical Corp.

The startup, based in White Bear Township, wins Food and Drug Administration approval for its fully implantable Esteem hearing device, raises another $16.4 million, including $10 million from Starkey Laboratories, and gets plugged on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Sweet!

VIRUS — The rest of Minnesota’s startup community.

It was a tough year to be a young firm. For nine months this year, Minnesota startups attracted $118.1 million in venture capital, a whopping 36 percent decline from the same period in 2008, according to the MoneyTree report by the National Venture Capital Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers based on data from Thomson Reuters.

Affinity Capital and Triathlon Medical Ventures abandoned efforts to create a $10 million early stage seed fund because of a lack of investor interest.

Transoma Medical, Leptos Biomedical, Disc Dynamics and Acorn Cardiovascular all shut down or significantly scaled back operations.

VACCINE — The University of Minnesota’s Biomedical Discovery District.

The $292 million research park suddenly makes the university a major player in commercializing promising school-made technologies.

VIRUS — Elk Run BioBusiness Park.

$1 billion investment fund? Hundreds of biotech jobs? Dozens of companies? Nope.

Instead, we have endless delays, missed deadlines, and one upset real estate executive.

VACCINE — Minnesota health-care reform.

Long before President Obama pushed through his healthcare law, Minnesota was on the cutting edge in health-care reform.

In 2008, Minnesota passed a law that will eventually allow consumers to compare the cost and performance of all providers in Minnesota, a process known as peer grouping.

This year, Minnesota health officials launched the first stage of that law, an incentive-based payment system for hospitals and ambulatory firms who treat state employees and patients enrolled in the state’s health insurance programs. Providers who compare favorably to benchmarks measuring the quality of diabetes, heart disease and pneumonia care, and who improve over time will receive extra money.

VIRUS — Minnesota Nurses Association.

The MNA argued they were fighting for patient safety by insisting on set staff-patient ratios. But the union’s one-day strike accomplished little other than winning modest pay raises, sniping at gubernatorial candidates, and costing the hospitals millions of dollars.

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