q & a: steve arless brings stellar biomed reputation to cleveland

Steve Arless has nearly four decades of international experience in the medical-device industry. But it was his last gig, as president and CEO of CryoCath, that gained Arless worldwide recognition. In 10 fast years, he took that catheter ablation device company from just a handful of employees to more than 300. Sales skyrocketed to $40 million. And the company was sold to medical-device giant Medtronic for a whopping $380 million.

Arless hopes to have similar success with Cleveland-based CardioInsight, which is developing cardiac arrhythmia ablation and cardiac resynchronization therapy. Each of these fields represent $1 billion-plus markets that are expected to generate double-digit growth over the next two decades due to a rapidly aging population.

Fresh Water caught up with Arless recently to discuss the company's -- and Cleveland's -- future.

You're working on some pretty interesting technology at CardioInsight. Please tell us about it.

The heart basically has three kinds of ways it can go wrong. The one everyone knows is coronary vascular disease. The one we work with is in the electric system of the heart: the spark. The heart muscle contracts by electrical activity. CardioInsight is developing mapping technology that can identify issues with the heart -- all non-invasively. We can then provide an easy-to-read model of a patient's heart and show all of the electrical activity. We can show where the problem is, and where to put an ablation catheter. We're pretty advanced in our technology. We're in the final stages of clinical studies; less than a year away from commercial introduction.

You have experience with some very established companies. What was it about working with a startup -- CardioInsight in particular -- that attracted you?

I just came from a company with 300 employees. I was looking for new opportunities. I know the [medical-device] industry so well -- knowing all the doctors around the world. This was a perfect fit for me, knowing what my experience was, what my passion is, and what this technology is all about.

When you were with CryoCath, you passed up a handsome offer from Johnson and Johnson to buy the company. Ten years later, the company sold for $380 million. Is there a lesson here, maybe one about patience?

What I did learn there is an argument to be patient, but it doesn't come without risk. In hindsight, it was the right move to make, but it could have gone the other way. With the way the U.S. economy is, it's not the way I would go right now. It's not nearly as doable as it was in the past. A lot of companies are getting into strategic partnerships earlier on to minimize risk and get the product into the marketplace faster.

Where do you see CardioInsight in, say, three years?

Our three-year goal is that we'll have a major market in the U.S., North America, Europe and Japan. That we will have established the technology in a significant number of sites in these critical markets so that we can show without a doubt that this technology has a major clinical value proposition. That it will be considered the next generation of electrocardiographic mapping.

How will this technology translate into job growth?

There were four people last year when I started. There are now 20 -- and we haven't started gearing up for commercialization yet. We have to grow the company in design and development. To launch next year, it will require significant additional resources. Not only are we creating employment within our own walls, we are consciously -- in part because of our state support and the Third Frontier -- trying to use as much regional expertise as possible. There are a number of regional players right now, actively helping to develop our product. There are jobs being created indirectly as well.

You mentioned Ohio's Third Frontier. What is your opinion of that program?

I am not aware of anyone doing this as boldly and as focused as the Third Frontier. It's a very results-oriented program. It's fabulous, and it's working.

Over the past few decades, Northeast Ohio has developed a rust-belt reputation. As an outsider looking to make this area home, how do you see it?

I think that it's an unfair and wrong label for the region. I have been very impressed with how the region is reorganizing itself to be a major player in the next level of technology. We have leaders like Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University -- all in Cleveland. We have a world-class network of health care institutions. There's also a seed-fund, supported largely by the state, called JumpStart, which is fantastic. It's expertise through participation. They help with know-how as well as with money. All of these factors are part of a great structure that will continue to help the technology sector, particularity healthcare and the healthcare technology industries in the U.S.

What is the present-day health of Cleveland's biomedical community?

I think there is a concerted movement, a dedicated network of people building a critical mass to make Cleveland a center of excellence in health care development. BioEnterprise is helping to make that happen. We are located in the BioEnterprise facility. When you walk into the building, the place is full of healthcare startups. This is real. You see companies and their names on the doors.

What makes Cleveland an attractive place to do business?

I think as an outsider coming in, as someone who has experience in a high-growth medical environment, I think electricity is in the air and there is momentum building. I think this is being done the right way to take some of this precious technology moving forward. All the right things are being done to build an industry.

What, if anything, needs changing?

It's working, and it's working just fine the way it is.

Photography by  Bob Perkoski