Sunday, February 11, 2001

Entrepreneur, cardiologist aim at heart cure

Radio frequency creates 'fire breaks' to quiet most common irregularity

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        There's heartening news emerging from a small West Chester startup. Medical entrepreneur Mike Hooven and cardiologist Donald C. Harrison have teamed up to provide a new technology for curing atrial fibrillation, the most common heart irregularity.

        Their new venture, AtriCure Inc., combines Mr. Hooven's engineering know-how with Dr. Harrison's research on atrial fibrillation (AF), a rapid, disorganized quivering of the heart's upper chambers. When AF occurs, it effectively causes those atria to stop pumping blood.

[photo] Michael Hooven, president of AtriCure (right), along with his employees Ken Miller, Jeff Messerly, Annette Gerding, Rick Nuchols, Pat Alexander, Jane Gabbard, Dan Dlugos and Sam Privitera, have ambitious plans to battle heart disease.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        “The company is purely focused on curing atrial fibrillation,” Mr. Hooven said. “We have a technique which we believe shows tremendous promise. It's already been tested in animals. What we're doing is developing a minimally invasive cure. There's such a huge market for this.”

        More than 3.5 million Americans suffer from AF, which lands people in the hospital more frequently than any other heart ailment and generates a health care price tag of more than $3.6 billion each year. Folks with AF also are vulnerable to strokes: The American Heart Association says the condition causes 70,000 strokes annually. The only procedure now used to cure AF is highly invasive open-heart surgery.

        Dr. Harrison, professor of medicine and cardiology at UC and senior vice president and provost for health affairs at the UC Medical Center, wants to change that. He met Mr. Hooven when the latter had just launched his first venture, Enable Medical Corp.

        At that time, Mr. Hooven was interviewing UC surgeons to glean ideas for new products that could help them streamline surgical procedures. Ultimately, Dr. Harrison joined Enable's board of directors. He shared his conviction that there had to be a better way to deal with AF than by simply treating the symptoms or performing an operation that put the patient at risk. He and Mr. Hooven decided to approach the problem together.

    Mike Hooven's mentor at Cordis Inc. was Norm Weldon, himself the founder or co-founder of seven companies. When Mr. Hooven decided it was time to test his entrepreneurial skills, Mr. Weldon agreed to give him startup capital and allow him to head his own company, Enable Medical Corp.
    With Mr. Weldon and two other founding board members backing him, Mr. Hooven developed and tested two new product prototypes and unveiled them at Enable's first board meeting in June 1994.
    Investment flowed into the company with the announcement of the new products, and with an initial fund of $450,000, Enable was pumping. The company has grown from two full-time employees to 21. Its revenue in 1996 was $1.5 million, which doubled to $3 million in 1997. Enable has a current capitalization of more than $7 million.
    AtriCure Inc. was launched in November 2000. Because of its different focus, it will move in March to its own space down the street from Enable, which is at 6345 Centre Park Drive in West Chester Township. Once it occupies the new facility, Mr. Hooven plans to expand the enterprise and hire full-time development, marketing, clinical and manufacturing staff.
    Enable Medical Corp. can be reached at 755-7600.
        “My reason for wishing to work with Mike Hooven is that Mike is one of the most inventive engineers I have been associated with,” Dr. Harrison said. “He has a history of developing innovative medical technologies, and I recognized what an important partnership this would make in helping me achieve my goal.”

        The two explored ways to use radio frequency energy to create “fire breaks” in the heart to prevent further fibrillation. When fine lines are incised in the heart's hard tissue, the affected tissue can no longer conduct the electrical impulses that cause the quivering. And unlike the current procedure, which keeps a patient out of circulation for a while, the new procedure can be performed in one hour — sometimes less — and allow the patient to return home within 24 hours.

        Helping Dr. Harrison refine his technology is characteristic of Mr. Hooven's medical entrepreneurship. An engineer who enjoys problem-solving, he knew early in his career that he wanted to start his own medical devices company. With a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, he went to Miami to work for Cordis Corp., a medical equipment company, where he met and worked for Norm Weldon.

        In 1988, Mr. Hooven left Cordis to become director of new product development for Cincinnati's Ethicon Endo-Surgery. When he interviewed, he told company officials there that he planned to start his own company in a few years and wanted the experience and contacts he could build by working for Ethicon, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson.

        True to his word, Mr. Hooven teamed with his former boss Mr. Weldon to start a medical products company just six years later. Enable Medical Corp. took shape in Mr. Hooven's basement. It was a company without a product, but its founder soon developed the concept of using alternating radio frequency to create truly bipolar scissors for surgical work. Enable took off and has been highly successful.

        Radio frequency energy powers his inventions, but Mr. Hooven's energy comes from people.

        “It's easy to get excited about something that is going to have as big an impact on the medical field as AtriCure,” he said.

        Interactions with others fuel his enthusiasm and carry him through his workdays, no two of which are alike.

        “One day, I might be talking with surgeons or our board of directors,” he said. “Another day, we might have an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Other times can be quiet, and I'm checking my mail, doing research or taking a business trip.”

        But there are some constants to Mr. Hooven's non-routine.

        “Typically, I spend one hour in the morning at home talking with my chief adviser, my wife, Sue, about various business issues at Enable and AtriCure. She's both the chief financial officer and chief administrative officer. She handles all the stuff I can't deal with.”

        At work, Mr. Hooven moves through the plant, talking with engineers, chemists and technicians to nose out problems and concerns.

        “It depends on what the critical issues of the day are; that's where I'll be spending my focus. I always walk around the facility and ask people what problems they are solving that day, what they're working on and make sure they're focused,” he said. “You don't always get the resources you want, so you have to learn to work with what you have.”

        Said Mr. Weldon: “Mike has the ability to pick good people. He has two former bosses on (Enable's) board and a tremendous ability to converse in an equally facile way with physicians, engineers and financial analysts.”

        From childhood, Mr. Hooven was steeped in an entrepreneurial culture. His grandfather, Frederick J. Hooven, was an independent inventor whose contributions earned him a mention in Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence.

        Among his inventions: the photo typesetter, the first radar bombing system, the aircraft radio direction finder and the first front-wheel drive system in the United States. And, in a foreshadowing of his grandson's passion, he helped develop the first successful heart-lung machine.


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