Paragon Health is on track to become the biggest manufacturer of PPE in Ireland and the UK, according to Martin Tierney, a director of the family-owned firm which began trading just over two months ago in Derry.
The start-up makes medical-grade face masks for the Irish and export markets. It is already shipping on average four million disposable face masks per week.
Paragon Health, based in Ballykelly, has so far created 35 jobs and continues to recruit amid plans to ramp up production this year and next.
“This year, we’ll put probably £3.5 million into the business. Next year, we’ve earmarked further investment of between £7.5 million and £8 million,” Tierney said.
“We’ll be increasing our manufacturing capacity, adding new production lines right up to mid-2021. There’s a lot happening.”
Paragon Health is selling its disposable medical masks to the healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality and transportation sectors in Ireland and overseas markets including Canada and Australia.
“Up until now, Ireland has been a net importer of PPE,” Tierney said. “Now, we’re putting it on ships and sending it out across the world.”
Tierney had a ready supply chain for the masks. Seating Matters, the company which the 30-year-old runs with his brothers Ryan and Jonathan, sells clinical seating to hospitals and care homes globally.
That firm was set up in the mid-2000s by Tierney’s mother Martina, an occupational therapist, and employs 50 people in the family’s hometown of Ballykelly outside Limavady.
“At the time we started Seating Matters, my mother was having trouble sourcing chairs for her patients, so we designed some chairs for intensive care settings, rehabilitation and care of the elderly,” Tierney said.
“We made just one at first and then another and another. That’s really how it took off. We have several big customers now like the veterans hospitals in the US. We supply to the government of New South Wales in Australia and the government of Ontario in Canada.
“We’ve got a big network of distributors and sales people in different countries. Every hospital in Ireland and the UK is a customer and the vast majority of long-term care homes as well.”
It was through these customers that the Tierneys first learned of a global shortfall in medical mask supplies at the start of the pandemic.
“They were telling us that they couldn’t get a good supply of PPE. It was a natural fit for us,” he said.
“We’ve been involved in medical device manufacturing for about 15 years now. We could help, so that’s what we’ve done.”
The Tierneys found a facility in Tartnakilly Road, close to the Seating Matters headquarters. They built a clean room on the site, alongside a sterilisation facility, decontamination chamber and manufacturing space.
“We worked with two other companies to design and set up the production lines to manufacture the masks. The machines we’re using are brand new,” Tierney said.
“We tested the masks from March through to June, getting them wrong, trying again and making them better.”
The Tierneys were ready to launch their Type IIR disposable medical masks in July and shipped their first orders the following month.
The three-ply masks are made from spunbond and meltblown materials. They are latex-free, fluid-resistant and have 98 per cent bacterial filtration efficiency.
“Being a medical device manufacturer, we were able to get our regulatory issues sorted out pretty quickly,” Tierney said.
“We were very familiar with accreditation, from medical device regulations to ISO certification, things like that. The regulatory barrier is high and rightly so. These masks are for protecting the most exposed people, healthcare workers.”
The Tierneys are sourcing the materials for the masks from suppliers in Europe.
“Finding the materials was a big challenge. The one that’s become like hen’s teeth is the meltblown polypropylene,” Tierney said.
“Pre-Covid-19, it would have been sourced mainly from China or Turkey. The demand for it has skyrocketed now though as the demand medical face masks is so high, and it’s difficult to get as a result.
“Fortunately, we had the foresight to see that coming, so we sourced two very good suppliers in Europe. That has allowed us to manufacture the masks with a short lead-time.
“We’ve jumped on this very quickly. It has really been 100 miles an hour this last few months. The demand has just been incredible. On average, I’d say we’re making close to four million now per week.”
The Tierneys have received close to 200 applications so far for the new roles on offer at Paragon Health.
“We’ve recruited 35 people already and we’ll be up to 45 or 60 now in the next few days,” he said.
“The calibre of the people applying for these jobs has been fantastic. We’ve had software and hardware engineers, people from the automotive and medical industries, people who had been working in precision-machining.
“Those were all skills we needed and were able to find. The yin and the yang of the pandemic is that Paragon has benefited from the misfortune of other companies that have had to lay off or furlough people.
“That means that there are some very high-calibre people out there on the market now, looking for work.”