Medical supply firm finds a niche and grows with it

When doctors perform an angioplasty, they usually start by inserting a catheter – a thin plastic tube – into the patient’s blood vessel. Then they insert a guidewire through the catheter, and then, over the wire, the balloon they will use to expand the blocked vessel.

Every item used in the procedure must be immaculate, so strong, sterile packaging is crucial. For guidewires in particular, the standard is a coiled plastic tube held together by tiny clips.

And nobody makes more or better guidewire dispensers, Raymond A. Byrnes says, than Contech Medical Inc.

“We’re the largest company that makes these devices in the world,” Byrnes said last week. “We’ve got probably 80 percent of the marketplace in the entire world.”

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You could call Contech Medical one of the Rhode Island technology sector’s best-kept secrets. Even its plant is low-profile, housed in a former textile mill off Hartford Avenue in Providence that isn’t visible from the street – except from above, from a highway ramp.

Its products are in hospitals and doctors’ and dentists’ offices around the world. But they generally carry not the Contech label, but rather familiar brand names such as Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson, or specialty brands such as Bicon dental implants.

And while high-tech and biotech companies steal the local headlines, Contech has quietly registered three U.S. patents, established a sister company in Ireland, and grown to employ 92 people in Providence, not counting its numerous subcontractors.

In February, the company purchased the 110,000-square-foot building where it has had its plant since 1989. Welcon Inc., the fellow medical products manufacturer that had owned the property, has moved out. Contech is quickly growing into the space, adding two clean rooms (for a total of seven), expanding its warehouse, and leasing what remains to other companies.

Byrnes laughs when he looks back at Contech’s evolution over its 17 years at 99 Hartford Ave.

Originally, he recalled, “we took this huge space, 5,000 square feet. We thought it would last us forever. And in one year, we needed more, and within three years, we had 25,000 square feet, the full third floor. We just kept growing and growing and growing.”

Contech – which Byrnes owns with his son, Christopher, the vice president of operations, and Frank Barrett, the vice president of sales, marketing and product development – was born out of a project Raymond Byrnes started in 1985.

Byrnes, then vice president of sales and engineering of a Connecticut company, approached a major client and asked what new products he could offer. That client – medical supplier C.R. Bard, which at the time was based in Billerica, Mass. – asked for a good guidewire dispenser.

Working with a Providence new product development company, Byrnes designed machines to make dispensers that were not only of high quality, but also cost-effective to make. Bard agreed to buy them, and started making them.

But his employer didn’t care for the new line. “So I said, I’m going to take that business and start my own company,” Byrnes recalled. That was in 1987.

In 1992, a client persuaded Byrnes to start a small operation in Galway, Ireland, and what began as an experiment with four machines turned into a large operation, with clients across Europe and beyond.

Last year, Byrnes and his former partner, Bob DePetrillo, formally split up the company, with Byrnes, his son and Barrett taking the U.S. plant, and DePetrillo taking the Irish plant. They remain closely tied, however, sharing patents, technologies and clients.

The plants themselves combine old-style and new-style manufacturing.

The clean rooms are seas of white – white workstations, white-clad workers, white materials – with crisp, cool air that is carefully controlled for temperature, humidity and cleanliness, just as you’d find at Amgen.

But there are no computers, beakers or petri dishes, just women (and a few men) doing very precise work by hand, aided by stripped-down, hand-operated machines that make a metallic clatter as they assemble the guidewire dispensers.

The innovation is in the design that allows such low-tech gear to cut at a perfect angle, or twist just so, and in the materials and components.

Contech doesn’t make most of the items it packages, but it assembles many of them; it adds little plastic caps, end pieces, or special wrapping materials; and it prepares kits with all the items needed for a specific procedure, down to the disposable syringes.

Contech’s product line numbers in the thousands, and is entirely customizable – whether that means adapting to a complex design for a new device, or making medical packaging tubes in blue or yellow instead of white, to match a client’s corporate colors, Chris Byrnes said.

For every product, there are detailed specifications; the Boston Scientific materials alone fill a thick binder. And the entire operation, Barrett noted, is certified to meet industry standards, and is tightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

So yes, Contech outsources most of its production, but it also controls it closely.

“We have all our materials made for us, but we own the equipment and give them the specifications,” Byrnes said.

“All the machines are proprietary. We designed and built them all.”