St. Paul company competes in retraction market

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2008 - 10:41 PM

A St. Paul company that makes wishbone-shaped retractors -- which hold skin open during surgery -- is taking on Johnson & Johnson in the market for a ring-style retractor. Omni-Tract says its new retractor has fewer parts.

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At Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis this month, John Zak, a sales representative for Omni-Tract Surgical Inc., demonstrated the company’s new product to, from left, Jan Rhody, Sue Brattland, Joe Brinza and Naydeen Jusczak . Omni-Tract is entering a new part of the surgical-retractor market.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Surgeons, some say, can be a stubborn lot, not eager to change what's familiar to them.

Yet Omni-Tract Surgical Inc., a St. Paul-based company that has built its business by cultivating that obstinacy, is taking dead aim at its only rival in the $25 million surgical retractor market in the United States, Johnson & Johnson.

Surgical retractors are stainless steel devices that hold the skin open or an organ aside while surgeons operate.

Today, surgeons either use an Omni-Tract wishbone-shaped retractor, or a "Bookwalter," a ring-style retractor made by Codman of Raynham, Mass., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

Omni-Tract, which controls the foreign retractor market but trails Codman in the United States, recently introduced its own ring-style retractor, called Speed-Tract, that it hopes will attract surgeons away from the Bookwalter. Omni-Tract, which boosted its sales force to 70 representatives, predicts sales will grow 20 percent this year. The company generates about $10 million in annual revenue, mostly selling to vascular surgeons, while Codman focuses on general surgeons.

But that's all about to change, said Omni-Tract president Dan Reuvers.

"We sort of left the Bookwalter business alone," Reuvers said. "Now we are going in and saying [to surgeons] 'Now I want to talk to you about all of your retractors.'"

A spokeswoman for Codman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Reuvers said Omni-Tract and Codman cornered the retractor market -- and therefore the loyalty of surgeons -- simply by being the first companies to recognize the need for such a device.

Tired nurses

In the past, nurses and interns would hold open incisions during surgeries. But complex operations could take hours. As a result, fatigued nurses would reposition their hands and obstruct the view of the surgeon.

The cut flesh is "hard to hold," said Diane Schendzielos, a top nurse in the surgery department at St. Cloud Hospital. "That's a lot of pulling for my hands."

Retractors create "exposure to the area much better than we can do otherwise," she said. Surgeons "can see where they are doing the surgery."

Founded in 1971 as Minnesota Scientific Inc., Omni-Tract gained a large following among vascular surgeons who specialize in problems with arteries. At the time, Bruce LeVahn, the company's founder, was approached by Dr. Kenneth Jensen, a cardiothoracic surgeon who needed a better way to expose the internal mammary artery. In 1982, LeVahn collaborated with Dr. Robert Anderson of Hennepin County Medical Center to develop the company's trademarked Wishbone retractor system for kidney transplants.

Today, Omni-Tract devices are used in urological, orthopedic, and general surgeries. The company is owned by Steve LeVahn, son of the founder. Outside board members include George Heenan, a former Medtronic executive who is now chief executive of Excelsius Partners, a Bloomington-based business development company; Tom Gillam, an administrator in the Surgery Department at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and Mike Evers, a professor at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

Dr. Brian Miller, a vascular surgeon who frequently works at United Hospital in St. Paul, said Wishbone retractors are reliable and easy to use.

The devices "are very versatile," said Miller, who is not affiliated with Omni-Tract. "They accommodate different body types, from skinny to large. [The company] has responded well to surgeon needs."

Staying in the comfort zone

Reuvers hopes surgeons who use Bookwalters will feel the same way about Speed-Tract. The device is about 20 percent lighter than ring-style retractors and has fewer parts than the Bookwalter, he said.

Still, Reuvers admits it won't be easy to persuade surgeons, who tend to train on either an Omni or Bookwalter, to switch retractors.

"We are very careful about this," he said. "There are very few overnight success stories in the medical-device field. The tendency to change the behaviors and habits of surgeons occurs pretty slowly.

"Rather than try to do something too innovative, we were careful to design Speed-Tract to provide all of the things Bookwalter surgeons like and makes them comfortable and familiar ... and simply insert a few features that will give them a reason to change," he said. "But not such a big change that we are testing their comfort zones."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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