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Tech Tour Day One: Magnificent Marquette

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Peter Didyk, Pioneer's director of sales and marketing, with the company's new products for helping the rib cage of cardiac surgery patients fuse and heal more quickly.

Peter Didyk, Pioneer’s director of sales and marketing, with the company’s new products for helping the rib cage of cardiac surgery patients fuse and heal more quickly.

MARQUETTE (WWJ) — I haven’t been to Marquette on the Tech Tour for four years now. And as I recall, the last time I was here it was snowing. In May.

Well, this time, a cold rain gave way to springlike sunshine and temperatures in the 50s, surely an omen for the warm greeting I got Friday from my first interviews as the 10th annual Spring Tech Tour began.

Things got off to a rousing start at Pioneer Surgical Technology Inc., a high tech medical device manufacturer that is growing rapidly and expanding nationwide.

Pioneer was founded in 1992 by Marquette surgeon Matthew Songer and its first major proudct was the Songer Cable, used in spine injuries.

Since then, the company has expanded into other surgical products for the spine, orthopedic, cardiac and thoracic markets, as well as biologics — living products — used to promote bone healing.

“Last year we observed our 20th anniversary, which for a medical manufacturer is remarkable,” said Peter Didyk, Pioneer’s director of sales and marketing. “Most of the time you are either acquired, sold or go public by then — even Johnson & Johnson is not safe.”

Pioneer has grown by both designing new products and by acquisition. In 2007, Pioneer acquired Angstrom Medica, a Massachusetts based medical company focused on nanotechnology and Encelle,  North Carolina based company researching and developing tissue regeneration products. Songer left active management about three years ago but remains an investor. Today the company is led by Daniel H. Webber, CEO, a CPA and former real estate and automotive executive.

Pioneer’s 125,000-square-foot headquarters factory is an amazing technological tour de force, from clean room and sterile products reminiscent of MichBio’s most advanced members to highly advanced computer controlled metalworking equipment that would make any Detroit Three gearhead smile.

The company manufactures spinal and cardio-thoracic surgery products under its own name, as well as biologics that combine the technologies of Angstrom and Encelle — a crystalline form of calcium that, when combined with a patient’s own bone marrow and bone cells, promotes new bone growth.

Its most recent product line, “Tritium,” combines the two most used methods of closing a patient’s rib cage after open heart surgery — a stamped titanium plate that is affixed to the two halves of the rib cage with screws, and high-tech titanium wire.

Didyk and colleague Jamie Close came up with the design on a napkin in a brainstorming session in January 2012 and took it to Pioneer’s prototype machine shop. The FDA approved the device in October, and the first surgery using it took place in December.

That’s the kind of entreprneuerial spirit that has kept Pioneer growing, to 300 employees and offices in four states, the Netherlands and Germany.

Didyk said Pioneer operates by three rules — make treatment better for the patient, faster and easier for the surgeon, and cheaper for the health care system.

And he said that while it’s a challenge to recruit to the remote Upper Peninsula, the company remains committed to growing in the UP. Besides, there are people like him — who went to high school in Dearborn and got a biomedical engineering degree at the UP’s Michigan Tech before getting an MBA at Michigan — who are eager to return to the North Woods and still have a challenging tech career.

After Pioneer, I swung over to Marquette’s west side and the new offices of 906 Technologies, a jack-of-all-trades IT company founded in 2005 by Lee Francisco.

Francisco grew up in the UP town of Amasa and came to Northern Michigan University in Marquette in 1998 to study business and computer information systems. NMU hired him full-time before he finished school as a PC technician, a job he would hold from 2001 to 2009. He founded 906 Technologies — its name taken from the UP’s area code — in 2005 “because so many people asked if I did anything on the side.”

By 2009, Francisco said, 906 Technologies had grown to five full-time employees, and running it was also a full-time job, “so I had a decision to make. In 2009, I quit the university.”

906 has continued to grow since then. Today it’s at 24 employees, split about evenly between the company’s computer repair and maintenance operation and its application development shop, in 4,000 square feet.

“And we are hiring now — we are always looking for people,” Francisco said.

Francisco said 906’s app development shop isn’t bound by geography, “so we’re able to work across the country and around the world. We’ve done mobile app development for Fortune 100 companies and Web site development for national businesses.”

One intriguing app Francisco is working on is called the Penny App.

“It’s a charity app that will allow anyone to be able to donate anything, as little as a penny, to the charity of their choice, whenever they want,” Francisco said. “Most charities don’t want to accept pennies, nickels, dimes, The process we are patenting allows charities to do that, accumulate it, and then the charity will get a check at the end of the month.”

Believe it or not, Francisco said, “the hard part is getting charities to accept it. I would never have thought this, but we have been turned down by numerous national charities.” Why? Francisco said they’ve told him they “aren’t set up for something like this, or it doesn’t fit their business model — which I thought was insane, because which nonprofit doesn’t have a business plan that accepts money?”

Francisco said the beta version of the Penny App includes local Marquette-area charities, like UPaws, an animal shelter, and the UP Children’s Museum, who are happy to have the money. The app also includes built-in games and entertainment. And he says he wants to get celebrities to use the app to raise money for their pet charities.

Francisco said he wants to keep growing 906 so that it can fulfill what he said was a major mission: “Our goal was keeping the talent that wants to stay in the UP in the UP. Otherwise, a majority of people hightail it for a city, because they think that’s where the jobs are, or that’s the only place they will get a chance to work on large projects … I would love to have our own products and make an impact. I see this almost as an incubator, where we take people with little or no experience coming out of college and give them the opportunity to work on projects right in Marquette that they couldn’t get elsewhere.”

From there it was back to downtown Marquette and Getz’s, that most unusual business — an old-fashioned downtown department store that’s actually survived into the 2010s.

How has Getz done it? By embracing the Internet. At one point, nearly two-thirds of Getz’s revenue came online, where Getz’s was among the planet’s top sellers of Carhartt rugged work wear, the stuff that’s also popular with a younger, urban audience.

But all is not sweetness and light by the shores of Lake Superior. Getz’s manager Dennis Mingay told me that things are getting ever tougher and more competitive, as other businesses, including the clothing manufacturers themselves, get into the online sales business.

“This year it’ll probably be more like 50-50 between online and the store,” Mingay said.

Not only that, but shipping costs are rocketing — up 50 percent over the past five years, Mingay said. And more and more shoppers expect free shipping, which Getz’s offers on all orders $50 and up.

Then, of course, there’s Congress, moving toward requiring online retailers to collect state sales taxes for the jurisdictions of their customers.

“It’s become much more competitive, much tougher,” Mingay said. We’re looking at it closely for costs. And we’re trying to control our pay-per-click (online advertising) costs as well.”

Luckily, though, Mingay said Getz’s store continues to perform well. And it’s amazing selection is as good as ever — virtually every SKU from Levi’s and Carhartt is available on the store’s three floors.

And with that, my first half-day in Marquette came to an end. Now it’s off to commit a little journalism and rest up for a busy Saturday.

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