Posted February 22nd, 2011 in News

As a maker of manufacturing equipment for the medical plastics industry, Tucson-based Vante helps its customers retool to produce the latest designs in catheters and similar devices.

Now the company, formerly known as SEBRA, is retooling itself.

When SEBRA sold off its blood-related business in the fall of 2009, company officials said they would reinvest the proceeds to drive growth and innovation.

The company changed its trade name to Vante and is growing again as a market leader in supplying machines to make medical catheters and seal sterile tubing.

The company sold off much of its business and shed more than half its work force following the $12.5 million sale of SEBRA’s name and blood-collection and processing line to Massachusetts-based Haemonetics Corp.

Vante achieved growth of 20 to 30 percent six years in a row as SEBRA and it is targeting 15 percent growth this year, expecting sales of $9 million to $10 million, said Brent Fausett: Executive Vice President.

Under the deal with Haemonetics, Vante is barred from competing in the blood-processing equipment business.

But the company is pushing into other markets, particularly in cardiovascular catheters used to diagnose and treat heart disease. It’s a big market. The medical-device industry is worth $400 billion in annual sales, and the catheter market alone is worth $32 billion, Fausett said, citing industry research.

Vante’s Saffire catheter-making equipment can form tips and other features of varying shapes in a single operation, cutting manufacturing time and costs.

The secret is Vante’s proprietary technology that uses radio frequency to heat plastic items or the molds that shape them with pinpoint precision, heating a thin section of tubing to form a tip, neck or other feature as needed. “We have the ability in our dies to very drastically change temperature over a very small space,” Fausett said.

Some products, such as cardiovascular catheters used to implant stents or provide diagnostic imaging, are amazingly complex, with multiple channels and tiny holes to inflate arterial ballions.

“The big thing now is they put a catheter up inside your heart, and they like to do 3-D imaging,” Fausett said.

In many cases, the machines and custom tooling can form a complex catheter in one operation, replacing multiple shaping and trimming procedures.

Another Vante product can instantly seal large tubing by heating up the plastic with radio waves generated at the point of seal with a handheld device. Drug manufacturers, for example, use the system to quickly pinch off and seal containers of pharmaceutical liquids for further processing, Fausett said.

Such functionality doesn’t come cheap – Vante’s machines cost upwards of $50,000 each. But they can make precision products with higher efficiency and save customers on long-term “life cycle” costs such as maintenance, he said.

Vante is the only catheter-equipment maker to be certified under the same quality certification that applies to medical-device makers, known as ISO1345:2003

“Even though we don’t make the final product, we apply the same quality system to the building of our products, so we understand what they go through,” Fausett said.

Vante’s customers include some of the biggest catheter makers in the business, Fausett said, but he declined to name customers because of confidentiality agreements. The top catheter makers include Boston Scientific, Medtronic, Cook Medical, St. Jude Medical, and Johnson & Johnson.

Vante has launched strategic partnerships with leading medical companies. For example, Vante partnered last year with ASG Medical Systems to produce an automated catheter-tipping system, which effectively doubles the capacity of the equipment. The company also is doing contract research and development work with Haemonetics.

Fausett expects to add to its current work force of about 45 people as the company’s markets grow. Payroll peaked at about 100 workers in 2008, and totaled about 75 when Haemonetics acquired SEBRA’s blood-products division.

Vante’s work force includes a number of University of Arizona graduates, including Joe Augustine, a senior mechanical engineer. “It’s just a good company to work for, and a lot of what they do is just this jaw-dropping technology,” said Augustine, who worked for the company four years after graduating in 2005 and recently returned after a stint with a defense company.

Vante’s growth is good news for numerous small local suppliers it uses.

Tony Lyons, who owns Total Tools Inc. with his wife, Judy, said his shop has been making custom machine parts for Vante and its predecessor since 1998.

Acquisitions can sometimes hurt local suppliers, Lyons said, citing a loss of business when Texas Instruments bought locally based Burr-Brown Corp. in 2000 and later moved manufacturing operations out of Tucson.

But with SEBRA’s sale, Total Tools is still doing business with Haemonetics, while it expects more work from Vante.

“So it’s good for us as a small company,” Lyons said.

David Wichner Arizona Daily Star