According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment worldwide. Fortunately, the condition, defined as a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye, is treatable through non-invasive surgical removal; the operation is one of the most common procedures performed in the U.S. today. But it’s a much different story for developing countries, where 99% of the total 52 million people globally suffering from vision loss due to cataracts live. In places like India and Africa, cataracts treatment is neither accessible nor affordable, which is why the condition is responsible for 50%-80% of blindness in India and and 65% of blindness in Africa. This is just one example of a global health disparity that Milwaukee-based medical technology contract manufacturer MPE (Midwest Products & Engineering) Inc. has worked to address through its “vertically integrated” business model. The company specializes in medium-volume design and production for health care and high tech original equipment manufacturers. “A big part of our focus is taking various sophisticated technologies and simplifying how they’re used so that these technologies are available to global patients,” said Hank Kohl, president of MPE. So, when a major OEM in the ophthalmology medical devices space wanted to create simplified technology that would allow organizations like Doctors Without Borders do high-volume cataract removal surgeries in developing communities, MPE brought that vison to life. “What we were able to do was repurpose the sensors that we’ve identified and used in other surgical applications to be able to measure the pressure in the eye. It was a disposable sensor that was very low cost and readily available, and by using that, we were able to adapt the technology to automate the eye pressure reading and hold that pressure in the procedure to take that off of the surgeon’s needs,” said Kohl. [caption id="attachment_557893" align="alignright" width="218"] Hank Kohl, president of MPE. Credit: MPE[/caption] The innovation significantly cut costs and reduced the surgery time by more than 70%, he said. Located at 10597 W. Glenbrook Court on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, MPE’s local footprint includes a 160,000-square-foot manufacturing facility; a 40,000-square-foot receiving, quality and office facility; and a nearby 50,000-squre-foot distribution facility. The company plans to add 30,000 square feet to its electronic and cable manufacturing footprint next year. As a result of recent acquisitions, it also has a 75,000-sqaure-foot facility in Racine and a 25,000-square-foot location in Carlsbad, California Through its five business segments – MPE Design, MPE Prototype, MPE Components, MPE Mobility and MPE Systems – the company handles every step of a project’s development lifecycle, from “concept to completion.” The result is an FDA-approved product that goes to market faster and at a much lower cost, ultimately increasing revenue for the customer. “For example, a major company like Medtronic or GE Healthcare would typically take 5 to 7 years to develop a new product in the market. … We’re doing that typically in 14 to 16 months today in our model,” said Kohl. “That’s the model that these companies are appreciating because we can get them the technology that the market is demanding much faster than they can on their own.” MPE’s recent innovations cover a range of uses and areas, from neonatal to surgical navigation. There’s the hospital bassinet that allows an infant to be next to its mother after a problematic birth; a Cleveland Clinic device for thoracic surgical procedures that uses AI and sensors, rather than radiation, to create a live image of the patient’s heart; then there’s the self-guided CPR skills training platform, which is designed to give health care staff an opportunity to practice their CPR skills frequently. “I think we’re on seven surgical robotic platforms that are currently in production in the market today, where there were none when we started this journey,” said Kohl. This year, MPE is projecting 60% year-over-year growth. The company didn’t get to this point overnight. The company was founded in 1978, but its current mission and growth trajectory can be traced back to 2012, when it launched a plan to capitalize on a major shift within the medical device space. The Affordable Care Act introduced value-based, preventative health care into a market built on a foundation of reactionary practices. Medical device OEMs were forced to look differently at their product development pipeline and technology they had on the market, said Kohl. Over the next few years, the company invested about $25 million in its manufacturing footprint and invested heavily in human capital, recruiting the state’s top engineers from medical device OEM customers and local universities, said Kohl. The business grew from 100 to now 300 employees at its Glenbrook Court facility. In 2019, Chicago-based private equity firm Beecken Petty O’Keefe & Co. acquired a majority equity stake in MPE, further accelerating the company’s growth objectives to the tune of $550 million. BPOC is among the oldest private equity firms in the U.S. that specializes exclusively in health care. “They knew our industry, they knew many of our customers, and they were able to put together a fund that could support the business plan that were acting on today,” said Kohl. For BPOC, which has raised almost five funds and done almost 60 platform investments since 1996, MPE was a diamond in the rough. “We see a lot of contract manufacturing businesses, it’s a core vertical for us. We say ‘no’ to most of them,” said Adam Hentze, principal BPOC. MPE’s concept-to-completion model as well as its leadership team – and Kohl’s vision in particular – were the biggest attractors for BPOC, he said. “The ability to start at the very early stage of design and development and support a company all the way up to commercial scale manufacturing – that’s something we hear a lot but when you dig into the details, I think MPE is unique in its capability to truly do that,” said Hentze. The strategic partnership enabled MPE in 2021 to acquire Yorkville-based Racine Metal-Fab, a fabricator of highly aesthetic and complex sheet metal components and sub-assemblies, and California-based MindFlow Design, a medical product development firm. MPE has additional acquisitions in the works to continue to “fill the gaps” in its manufacturing capabilities, said Peter Georgianna, vice president of corporate development at MPE. “Right now, the capabilities that we have (in Milwaukee) are really around metals and bending and assembling this really high-tech medical hardware. But some of the things that we don’t have is a tremendous depth in manufacturing plastics, for example,” said Georgianna. Robotics and human-machine interface design are two other capabilities MPE is looking to bring in-house through acquisition. “(Potential acquisitions) don’t have to be fully mature, they don’t have to have the quality systems or the high-level customer relationships that we have,” said Georgianna. “They just need to be able to do the thing that we want them to do.”
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