Medical device company continues to grow with a wearable defibrillator

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An O'Hara company that is growing at better than a 50 percent annual clip is not looking to slow down now that its parent is being swallowed up by a $2.2 billion acquisition.

Zoll Medical's LifeVest business has 385 employees and 115 contract workers at its new offices in RIDC Park. Another 190 employees work outside the region, for a total head count of 690. That's up from about 400 employees and contract workers a year ago.

"We're hoping to continue to grow at a pretty comparable rate," said Marshal W. Linder, 52, president and chief operating officer of Zoll's LifeVest business. "Our growth is only limited by our ability to get the word out to physicians."

LifeVest is the world's only wearable defibrillator, designed to prevent sudden cardiac arrest for patients awaiting long-term treatment for heart ailments. The vest, which weighs about two pounds, continuously monitors a patient's heart. When it detects a life-threatening problem, the vest delivers a shock to restore a normal heart beat. Getting the shock sooner after a problem occurs increases the chances of survival, Mr. Linder said.

No other company has a similar product on the market and Mr. Linder is not aware of any competitors that have one in the works. So for the time being, LifeVest has the U.S. market for the technology -- estimated at $1.8 billion -- all to itself. Zoll recently received the 60,000th doctor's prescription for the LifeVest, 18 months after passing the 30,000 prescription milestone.

LifeVest registered sales of $111 million in the company's most recent fiscal year, up 57 percent from the previous year. LifeVest accounts for 21 percent of the $523.7 million in revenue Zoll Medical reported for the fiscal year ended Oct. 2. The Chelmsford, Mass., company also makes defibrillators, cardiac support pumps, devices used to manage the temperatures of patients and related products.

Zoll acquired LifeVest in 2006. The device was pioneered by M. Stephen Heilman, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur who founded Medrad and Intec Systems, which developed an implantable defibrillator.

To accommodate the rapid growth, LifeVest moved from cramped quarters on Freeport Road up the hill to the former headquarters of MSA, a safety products company that had relocated to Cranberry. Allegheny County assessment office records indicate Zoll paid $1.1 million in October for the building, which features a three-story courtyard atrium landscaped with trees and other plants.

In a basement training room where MSA held its annual shareholder meetings, Zoll employees assemble the paddles of the wearable defibrillator, inserting gel that is released before the shock is delivered to the vest user. Across the atrium, workers recondition vests while they listen to the gentle gurgle of the atrium's fountain.

The typical vest user rents the product for two or three months until a doctor prescribes a long-term solution, which could be implanting a defibrillator that will do the same job. Patients waiting for a heart transplant can wear the vest for months until a donor is found.

Mr. Linder said the company has not had problems finding workers in the region with the skills needed to produce and service the devices.

"That's a strength that let us grow," he said.

More growth is expected once Zoll is acquired by Asahi Kasei, a Japanese chemical company whose health care businesses include pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Asahi signed an agreement in July to distribute a Zoll defibrillator in Japan and had been in talks about doing the same for LifeVest.

Asahi Kasei announced March 12 it would pay $93 per share to acquire Zoll, whose shares were priced at $75 before the offer and were selling for $43 a year ago. The acquisition is expected to be completed in the second quarter.

Mr. Linder said Asahi Kasei will accelerate introduction of the LifeVest in Japan, where it is currently being reviewed by regulators, as well as other overseas markets. Asahi Kasei has annual sales of $20 billion and customers in more than 100 countries.

"We don't expect any change for the LifeVest business here in Pittsburgh," Mr. Linder said. "The things we're interested in doing, they're interested in doing."

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Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.


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