For plastic maker, innovation is a way to develop new sources of revenue.

Taking the pain out of heart surgery is part of a diversification strategy at an Auckland plastic products maker.

The StarBoard, a forearm and hand support designed by Adept Medical, aims to make it quicker and easier for heart surgeons to perform operations that access the heart through the radial artery in the wrist.

Once all the necessary tubes and wires are in place, the patient's arm can be swung into a relaxed position.

Currently the process known as transradial catheterisation, performed on a lightly sedated but awake patient, involves strapping the hand into a flexed position for hours at a time.


Adept founder Murray Fenton, 65, says an approach by Auckland cardiologist Mark Webster resulted in the company turning his rough design idea into an award-winning product. "What he wanted was something where they could very quickly and in minutes make a difference with a patient that is really compromised."

Already the StarBoard, which is built entirely of easy-to-clean, X-ray-friendly radiolucent plastic, has garnered design gongs from the New Zealand plastics industry. It is now available for hospitals to purchase for $5000, and Fenton expects the sale of 200 in the first year to cover development costs.

With 20,000 hospital units around the world performing transradial catheterisation, some of them with multiple beds, sales could potentially go into the thousands.

"We actually made it because it seemed like a cool thing to do," says Fenton. "After we got into the design and got further and further into it we said, 'Yeah, it could be commercial too and it's worth pursuing and carrying on."'

Creating products like the StarBoard has become increasingly important for Fenton as he positions Adept for the future.

He started the business in his garage in 1969 with a homemade moulding machine, and its mainstay has been a throat clip used in meat processing to stop the stomach contents of slaughtered animals spilling on to abattoir floors.

The company has sold billions of the clips but, despite constant product improvements, Fenton can see competitors making inroads into his market share.

Adept's specialist plastic-manufacturing skills means it designs and supplies high-quality plastic components to other manufacturers, mainly Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

Fenton says the company is exposed to the possibility of F&P Healthcare being sold or moving its operations overseas.

So now the focus for Adept is on creating its own line of niche medical products that can boost revenue as income from current sources falls away.

"It's a continual path and we're working harder at it now because, particularly in the meat industry, the dollar is hurting."

There have been a few false starts along the way. A revolutionary, low-cost alternative to intravenous transfusion pumps failed to meet regulatory hurdles.

Adept had created a gravity-based system, the IVO, but the requirement to incorporate apparently unnecessary fail-safe mechanisms meant costs ballooned.

"We got to the stage where we had spent $1.5 million and then we still had work to do to meet the requirements, even though the product didn't need it," Fenton says.

The lessons learned have been useful as Adept develops another low-cost pump, currently a working prototype, for patients who need to be fed through a tube to the stomach.

The regulatory work has been done first and Fenton says the feed pump has potential to be sold worldwide in good numbers.

He says Adept has about 10 other products it is investing in or that it hasn't ruled out.

"Out of about 100 ideas 10 are worth looking at, and one of those is probably commercial."

The medical side is currently a small part of the $20 million-a-year business, accounting for only 5 per cent of Adept's revenue, but Fenton says sales of the StarBoard could double that.

One product that has made it to the commercial stage, that is neither medical nor meat-industry related, is Fenton's pet project: the Ikigun.

Based on the Japanese fishing tradition of severing the fish's spinal cord with a sharp spike to ensure a quick, humane death and high-quality flesh, the Ikigun was launched at the recent Auckland on Water Boat Show, and will be on shop shelves in time for Christmas.

Although Fenton's love of fishing and tinkering merge in the Ikigun, it also serves to showcase the company's design expertise built up over 40 years of manufacturing locally.