His military career ended abruptly in March, 1962, when a tire blew on his plane as he was landing on the carrier Independence. The plane skidded off the deck and fell 110 feet to the water.
"I got sucked under the ship," Luther said. "The screws chopped up the airplane with me in it. I was extremely lucky to get out. I was the only man to ever do it in the history of naval aviation--to go through the screws and survive."
After his recovery, which took nearly a year, he retired a captain and took advantage of a chemistry degree by going to work for a small pharmaceutical firm. In 1968, he joined American Hospital Supply Corp., where he oversaw a division that led him into the medical products field.
He found his calling as he began to come up with ideas for making better needles and catheters.
"I'm just fascinated with all the opportunities to improve catheters," said Luther, clutching a notebook of inventor's drawings that he keeps under lock and key.
"Catheters were considered pretty much a commodity item in the medical arena, and the medical community was conditioned to accept too high a complication rate," he said. "I mean, they'll accept a 6% to 10% complication rate in some of these catheters. I don't think that's necessary."
Luther spends hours at his so-called toy table, which is cluttered with needles, tubing and thread, as he works on inventions. He is developing a catheter that includes antibiotics to eliminate the risk of infections to patients.
The problem with specialized catheters is that hospitals--always looking to cut costs--need to be convinced that they should switch to the safer yet more expensive products, said David Anast, the editor of Biomedical Market Newsletter in Costa Mesa.
"The catheter industry is product, product, product," Anast said. "The broader the product line, the more stable the revenue stream. If Mr. Luther, through all of his genius of inventing, can keep coming up with marketable products, then the (company's) picture will continue to improve."
The next step is having enough marketing power by forming partnerships with the giants in the medical field if customers are going to choose Luther products, rather than that of competitors, which are lining up with similar products.
"It's a slow road," said Russell Diehl, managing partner in Diehl & Co., an Irvine-based investment banking and brokerage firm. "It's not a home run, bottom-of-the-ninth kind of thing. It's the singles and doubles. You have to build on the product line."
Luther recognized the need in 1990, and Tate Scott, the marketing director who also came from American Hospital, was promoted to president to handle day-to-day operations.
"You're either a manager or a creator," Luther said. "But very few people are creators who get their products marketed. To be part of that 1%, that successful inventors club, that's better."
Luther Medical weathered several unsuccessful deals before it finally found the right partner.
In 1986, the company appeared to be turning the corner when British BOC Group eyed Luther Medical for a buyout. The deal fell through when a catheter material developed by Luther was found to be too sensitive to alcohol to meet European medical standards.
The next year, the company struck a deal with Baxter Travenol Laboratories to sell its specially designed needles and soft catheters for use with premature infants. But that deal also fell through.
The breakthrough came in 1987. Luther Medical sold rights to a stickless needle to Critikon Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Tampa, Fla. Under the agreement, Johnson & Johnson attaches the needle to its own catheter products, including its ProtectIV. Critikon gave Luther advance royalties of $450,000, plus $150,000 to begin manufacturing the product.
The product is finally catching on. Sales of ProtectIV jumped 66% in the third quarter of 1992. Luther said 14 million units are expected to be sold in 1992, and sales should double next year.
"Things always grow slower than what you think they should grow," he said. "Even with the tremendous advantage Critikon has in the marketplace for our device, sales haven't grown as fast as we think they should. Now they are getting up there after three years."
Even so, the Critikon deal gives Luther royalties at just a paltry 3 cents per catheter. Each catheter sells for about $1.50.
"When you rely on big companies, the little companies get the leftovers," said Jensen, the Cruttenden research analyst. "But the leftovers are better than nothing."
Large partners have been the only way that a small company such as Luther--with just a few marketing representatives--can get its products on the market.
"Luther has traditionally been really short of money," Luther said. "The secret is to apply your resources to where they will do the most good. And we think that it is supplying them in the areas where these partnerships are.