Massachusetts tech company keeps athletes safe with designs
By KIERA BLESSING
Mar. 05, 2018
LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — The fear of concussion is changing the game of football and other contact sports as medical evidence shows repeated blows to the head can cause lasting damage to the brain.
Now, a Lawrence company is making concussions easier to diagnose and track. It manufactures sensors for one of the nation's leading makers of football gear. The sensors line football helmets to measure and record the severity of impacts, allowing team leaders and medical professionals to determine when it is safe for an injured player to return to the game.
Techprint is a printed electronics and specialty graphics company that dabbles in a little bit of everything, according to business developer Mark Nawrocki. The company is located in the large white manufacturing building that looms just beyond the southbound side of Interstate 495, right before the large Commonwealth Motors sign near the city line.
Inside, a large production floor uses a combination of massive printers, laser and blade cutters and human employees to print everything from specialty labels to highly sensitive biosensors that can detect everything from a human heart rate to the magnitude of impact on a football helmet.
The company, founded 40 years ago by the late Paul Durant and now led by his son, Paul Durant Jr., uses specialty inks and materials to create high-tech medical devices and biosensors, as well as other products like touch pads or tracking balls, like the one found on the underside of a computer mouse.
Originally founded in Woburn, the company moved to Lawrence 20 years ago when it outgrew its old space. Monetary incentives were a part of that move, Nawrocki said, but so was the fact that many of the company's employees hailed from the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire — and still do.
"The relationship with Lawrence has been fantastic," Nawrocki said. He later added in an email that the city is full of established industries, but is also "a hot bed for growing start-ups which can be a valued resource."
Techprint currently brings in about $19 million to $20 million in revenue annually, Nawrocki said, and is growing, especially in the medical device industry, where it partners with companies like Philips, General Electric, and Riddell, an industry leader in protective football equipment.
The 55,000-square-foot facility blends new technology, like laser cutters and "desktop printers on steroids," as Nawrocki calls them, with old-fashioned techniques performed by human employees, such as setting adhesives and visually inspecting all products. It employs about 130 people.
"Everything we ship is 100 percent visibly inspected," said General Manager Brendan O'Leary. "Everything we sell is custom-made."
One of the more sophisticated items Techprint produces is the Riddell InSite Impact Response System — a series of sensors that are used to line the inside of a football helmet and detect the frequency and severity of impacts a player sustains to the head. The system is then used as a monitoring system to measure the history of a player's head impacts, making concussions easier to track and diagnose.
Riddell, headquartered just outside of Chicago, originally invested in the InSite technology in 2004, according to executives, but did not begin marketing the system for commercial use until 2014, after Techprint helped them to produce an affordable version of the biosensors that line the inside of the helmets.
"We basically led them through prototyping all the way through manufacturing of the sensor," Nawrocki said. "They came to us with a concept, and we helped work through material selection, adhesive selection and the electronic engineering, as well as mechanical engineering, of the product to ensure it will work in a helmet — in a down-and-dirty, exposed environment — all the time."
Today, Riddell estimates InSite helmets are used by more than 30,000 high school football players across the nation — a number that is "growing by double digits every single year," according to Senior Vice President for Research and Product Development Thad Ide.
Techprint is the only manufacturer nationwide that produces the sophisticated sensors used in the InSite system marketed by Riddell, making the Lawrence-based company crucial to Riddell's success, Ide said.
"It's critical that we have consistent products that perform ... (Techprint is) part of ensuring that," said Michael Richards, a category manager for Riddell IQ. "A typical impact on a football field takes less than 20 milliseconds. ... It requires some pretty sophisticated engineering capability to be able to produce these sensors the way they do."
As the company continues to grow, Nawrocki said it's not in Techprint's interests to leave its Lawrence home any time soon.
"We love where we are and have established so many great relationships both in business and beyond that we wouldn't think of leaving," he said by email. "We are in the mix of a region stock full of new technology and love being here to help companies along the way."
Information from: Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times, http://www.gloucestertimes.com