BELFAST, Northern Ireland -There was a time when a military flak vest served as a symbol of Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles.
But if a Maryland-owned firm gets its way, a medical vest designed to quickly detect heart attacks could help save lives worldwide, provide good jobs in Belfast and become a new symbol for a peaceful Northern Ireland.
Meridian Medical Technologies of Columbia is embarking on a European launch of the PRIME ECG electrocardiac mapping system, created and manufactured in Belfast.
The device's groundbreaking development is a disposable electrode vest made from plastic, which can be quickly placed on the upper torso of an ailing patient to provide doctors with a more accurate and quicker diagnosis of a heart attack.
Information from 80 electrodes is fed to a computer that produces diagnostic images of the heart's electrical activity.
By comparison, conventional electrocardiograms use 12 leads.
"You'll save money and you'll save lives," said Jamil LaHam, Meridian's General Manager of Cardiopulmonary Systems.
Meridian's venture into Northern Ireland is another link in the budding business partnership between America and the once-embattled British province. With peace taking root in Northern Ireland, a once-stagnant economy is percolating, one job and one business at a time.
"I'm just a believer in Northern Ireland because our experience has been so good," said James H. Miller, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Meridian.
The firm was formed in 1996 through the merger of Bethesda-based Survival Technology Inc., and Massachusetts-based Brunswick Biomedical Corp. A key component of the merged firm was the Belfast operation.
Miller, who lives in Queenstown on Maryland's Eastern Shore and works in the firm's executive offices on Old Columbia Road in Columbia, has been coming to Belfast since the 1990s. When he first came here, Miller admits he was struck by the heavy military presence in the province where majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics struggled over land, history and national identity.
"I traveled in a lot of countries, some in considerable strife, and it reminded me of that," he said. "My initial impressions were quite wrong. It has turned out to be a place I enjoy visiting."
What impressed Miller most were the highly skilled workers.
"This isn't a low-cost labor market where the technology is developed somewhere else and then they manufacture it," he said. "They have quality academics and quality science."
The skill and passion of the workers also impressed LaHam, who has commuted to Belfast from his Ellicott City home for the past three years. Belfast is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Maryland's suburbs.
"It's a more relaxed pace, without question," said LaHam, who has a son attending Towson University. "It's more of a country atmosphere than a big city. But the people are quite friendly, warm and welcoming. The contrast be tween the Washington Beltway traffic and driving through Belfast at 9 o'clock at night is quite remarkable. There is no traffic in Belfast at 9 o'clock at night."
In his years here, he has seen little evidence of the terrorist troubles that for 30 years ripped apart Northern Ireland.
"I can't tell you who's Catholic, who's Protestant and who's an atheist," he said of his staff. "It's not part of our lives. As a business, we're a harmonious group that works well together."
If the Meridian experience is anything to go by, Northern Ireland's secret success is seeping out. Belfast now has the look of a boom town as construction cranes loom over the horizon.
Old industries like textiles, steel-making and shipbuilding -the ill-fated Titanic was launched here -are being overshadowed by new-economy stalwarts in computer software, telecommunications and health technology.
And the province is looking west -to the United States -to bring jobs and new businesses. Sixty-five U.S.-owned firms oper ate here, employing about 15,000 people. Firms are lured by a well- educated workforce -Northern Ireland annually records the best results on Britain's college entrance tests. Northern Ireland's Industrial Development Board also works to attract inward investment.
"With our economy, all the major indicators are pointing in the right direction," said Sir Reg Empey, Northern Ireland's trade and industry minister. "We want to deliver some gain through economic development. The people with a job or stake in the future, people who see their sons and daughters go out to work, that all can transform an entire community."
Northern Ireland's makeover can be viewed on a strip of land overlooking the old port of Belfast, where high-tech firms have sprung up on reclaimed land.
Among those based here is Meridian, which has a gleaming $5 million, year-old research and production facility that is home to 41 workers who focus much of their energy on the PRIME ECG electrocardiac mapping system. Employment could increase to 100 or 150 as the operation moves from research to manufacturing.
The workers also manufacture several other products, from auto- injector drug delivery systems that can provide quick doses of medicine, to a heart monitor that enables patients to transmit electrocardiograms over the telephone.
Taking about a decade to develop, PRIME ECG electrocardiac mapping system initially survived on funding from several local charities in Northern Ireland, including a brewery-sponsored marathon. But local managers acknowledged that without Meridian's investment, it would have been difficult to bring the device to market.
"While Northern Ireland has strength in research, we don't have strength in financing and marketing," said John Anderson, who spearheaded the project at the University of Ulster, where he is chairman of the departments of mechanical and electrical engineering. "It needed funding, a marketing portfolio and structure to commercialize it."
Created in conjunction with the University of Ulster's Northern Ireland Bio-Engineering Center and put through trials at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the device is approved for marketing in Europe.
The company has already notched its first sales in Britain -where it sells directly -and signed distribution deals with firms in Austria, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland and Hungary.
Clinical trials are also under way in the United States, and Miller said the firm hopes the device will be on the U.S. market next year. But it faces significant hurdles to win acceptance.
"Nothing has withstood the test of time like a standard electrocardiogram," said Dr. Michael Gold, director of cardiac electrophysiology service at University of Maryland Medical Center.
But he also acknowledged "a need for simple, non-invasive technology to improve our diagnoses for arrhythmia and heart failure."
Dr. Henry Halperin, associate professor of medical and biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, said for the device to succeed, "It is going to have to be cost effective. How much bang will you get for your buck?"
The device would have to provide an "incredible advantage" in diagnosis "for people to change to this system," Halperin added.
In Belfast, the workers are proud of a home-grown product.
"We've got everyone from housewives and people who had no technical training going up to those with doctorates who could get jobs anywhere in the world," said Andrew O'Hara, managing director of the local plant.
A few years ago, Mark McDonnell was stuck in a dead-end job arranging airline food trays. Now, he's a screen printer at Meridian, applying a final dab of adhesive to the vests.
"I'd like to see this thing go the whole way and go to a worldwide market," he said.
Rhona Love, a quality engineer and trained microbiologist, joined the company in November and is excited about rising with the fortunes of a small company with a potentially major product.
"I've never been at the development stage of bringing a product to market," she said. "This is real science. This is why I went to university. This is what I wanted to get into."
She's also thrilled to be working for an American-owned firm.
"The English see us as terrorists with warm beer," she said. "The Americans look beyond the conflict. They see something here."
For O'Hara, the new system and medical vest can do so much, providing jobs, saving lives, giving another positive mark for Belfast.
"This is not the finish," he said. "This is just the start."