Making the most of a micro market

Elaine Williams, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·3 min read

Apr. 18—COLFAX — Rob Whitmore is in the business of making medical miracles possible, even though he works in a small factory, not a hospital or physicians' clinic.

Components manufactured by his company, Medical Micro Machining Inc., have helped restore vision to the blind, and, more recently, allowed diabetics to monitor their glucose levels without daily pin pricks.

They've also assisted with radio communications on space expeditions and performed more mundane tasks, such as fastening the rings that keep the keys of rental cars together or binders that hold information for military personnel.

Just before COVID-19 hit, Whitmore was on a glide path to a comfortable retirement following decades of hard work at what had been a recession-proof business. A Montreal firm was going to acquire the Colfax business.

"When everybody had terrible times (before COVID-19), we were just sailing along," Whitmore said.

Then the pandemic arrived. Now, the company is no longer breaking even, and he was forced to lay off two of Medical Micro Machining's six employees when 80 percent of the company's cash flow disappeared.

The business accepted almost $200,000 in Paycheck Protection Program grants that were part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.

"To me it was a bit of a surprise," he said. "I didn't see the medical side taking a hit."

When elective procedures were suspended at hospitals around the world to free personnel, supplies and equipment to care for coronavirus patients, sales of one the company's most important products, a plastic capsule, ground to a halt.

Roughly 3/4 inch long and  inch in diameter, the capsules house technology created by scientific engineering firms that allow people with diabetes to monitor their glucose.

But implanting or removing them requires an outpatient surgery at regular intervals. The devices approved in the United States can be used for three months at a time, and those on the market in Europe last six months.

The temporary disappearance of demand followed months of what had been a steep learning curve for Whitmore and his wife, Kathy Whitmore, vice president of quality control at Medical Micro Machining, learning how to meet the specifications of buyers working with the temperamental plastic.

"We were in on the ground floor," he said.

As shocked as Whitmore was by what happened with the plastic capsules, it wasn't the first time he'd seen and adjusted to extreme fluctuations in demand for his products.

One instance involved an almost microscopic tapered shaft. It helped pin electronics to the optic nerve so it could communicate with a camera on special glasses that help blind people discern shapes and letters.

Orders for it stopped without notice, and Whitmore never did get an explanation.

The company lost sales of the clasps for rental car keys when a competitor began selling them for 3 1/2 cents, half of Whitmore's price.

Yet demand for other parts remains strong. Among the smallest are stainless steel balls so tiny that several could fit on top of a pinhead.

Whitmore said he believes they're placed on wires at certain distances to help physicians keep track of where they are when they're doing surgeries.

Medical Micro Machining still makes thousands of the parts that originally went to the military for binders, but Whitmore believes they must have a different purpose now, with the advent of iPads and laptops.

The resilience of portions of the business is part of what makes Whitmore confident that in a year or so it will be as strong, if not stronger, than before COVID-19 hit. Once it reaches that stage, he'll put the company on the market again.

"It hasn't been boring," he said. "The stuff that's happened is really cool. We cover quite a gamut with a little company."

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.