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Monday, June 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inventor gains backing to seek other breakthroughs

Seattle Times business reporter

Clif Alferness


INNOVATOR now has funding to pursue new solutions to various medical problems.

Age: 57

Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from South Dakota School of Mines

U.S. patents: 62 issued, 25 more applications

Home: Port Orchard

Hobbies: Fishing, rebuilding old cars, spending time with grandchildren

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Clif Alferness just got a blank check for $500,000 to tinker with ideas.

It's another sign that Alferness, a gentle, white-haired engineer, has emerged as one of the nation's premier inventors of medical devices.

He was able to raise the cash, even when most venture investors are gun-shy about risking money on far-out concepts, because of his track record co-founding six startups that have advanced far enough to raise nearly $300 million.

The new company, vaguely named Seattle Medical Technologies, is being established in downtown Seattle. First, Alferness will try out ideas on four or five different medical problems. After six months to a year, he'll settle on the idea with the most potential, then seek up to $6 million to build a company around it.

He has been matched with a businessman, Daniel Hawkins, to run the day-to-day operations.

Alferness is being backed by Three Arch Partners, a $1 billion Bay Area venture firm led by the superstar of medical-device inventors, Thomas Fogarty.

Fogarty, who has 100 patents in a number of fields but is best known for inventing balloon catheters that remove blood clots without surgery, said the Seattle Medical investment is worth a shot because of what Alferness has done before.

"An inventor is someone who looks at a real medical need, thinks out of the box about how to solve it and has focus and dedication to follow it through," Fogarty said. "Clif has all the characteristics."

Prolific inventors, like Alferness, are particularly prized in the medical-device world because they create many of the hit concepts (like pacemakers or ultrasound), then get out of the way as teams of engineers spend years honing them for the marketplace. John Simpson and Richard Stack have gotten that sort of reputation for inventing angioplasty technologies, along with Al Mann for pacemakers and glucose monitors.

No medical degree

Alferness, 57, obtained his privileged status after an unusual career path. An electrical engineer with no medical degree, he wanted to get into computers in the late 1960s but couldn't find a job. He landed in medical devices, then an obscure field, at Minneapolis-based Medtronic, where he engineered bulky pacemakers to use less energy.

He moved to Redmond in 1975, joining Physio-Control and leading groups that invented the first lightweight defibrillators (used by paramedics to treat cardiac arrest) and later the first automatic, easy-to-use defibrillators (like the ones now widely used in airports).

Since then, Alferness has led startups that have attracted nearly $300 million of investment over the past 15 years.

Along with longtime business partner John Adams and others, he has come up with inventions that have ranged from a fabric mesh that supports weakened, enlarged hearts to a lung-surgery system that uses an elastic sleeve to prevent air leaks.

His approaches to such problems are radically different fixes never envisioned before — not just better, faster, cheaper versions of existing technology.

It's not his style, but Alferness can claim thousands of lives have been saved by the defibrillators he helped create at Physio-Control. He can't say the same thing yet about his more recent inventions at startups, which are still in clinical trials. But if the trials stay on track, several of the products have potential to do the same.

Adams, his longtime partner in engineering, knows what's different about Alferness. Many physicians know the anatomy and physiology of a medical problem, but have little practical idea how to fix it. Alferness knows the engineering, and has taught himself physiology like a doctor.

"He tries to understand the physiology of the problem first; then second, he thinks about how to fix it. There's a lot of other inventors with a technology that's looking around for a problem to solve, but Clif goes at it the other way around," Adams said.

The Edgar Martinez style

Alan Levy, chief executive of Northstar Neuroscience in Seattle, hasn't worked with Alferness but said he is known for consistently producing useful devices, for being easy to work with, quiet, humble, trusted — like the medical-device industry's version of Mariners star Edgar Martinez.

"One difference, though, is that careers can go on a little longer as an entrepreneur than in the major leagues," Levy said.

Alferness said he has no "lofty motivations" — neither an altruistic desire to help mankind, nor a drive to get rich and build business empires. "I just enjoy what I'm doing. It's fun," he said.

He said he can't explain how he comes up with his inventions, except that he's been reading and learning about physiology for years, is skilled in electronics and engineering, and is able to connect parts of the puzzle together.

Alferness, who grew up in a small town in Minnesota, drives a 1999 Toyota pickup, likes to go to a cabin in the San Juans on weekends to fish and tinkers with a 1931 Model A Ford pickup he's had since he was 15. He's been married to his high-school sweetheart for nearly 40 years. He's been taking insulin shots for his type 1 diabetes for years but now wears an insulin pump on his belt.

He said he plans to keep moving from idea to idea, company to company, because he's better at inventing things than running companies.

Asked about his ultimate goal, he furrowed his brow and gave a confused look.

"I just really like getting into why things work the way they do," he said.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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