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Heart Surgery Rock Star

Twenty five years ago, Steve Mickelsen was a successful rock musician, working part time in a hospital laboratory to help pay the bills. Doctors there took notice of him while he assisted with bedside procedures in the ICU and invited him to scrub in with them. Before long, he was instructing med students and teaching cardiology fellows how to suture.


“I liked my job as a rock star,” Mickelsen said, “but I had always been interested in science and medicine so at age 28 I enrolled in college. It took 18 years to finish my formal medical training from undergraduate to cardiac electrophysiology certification.”

Today Mickelsen is a cardiologist with the University of Iowa, and founder of IOWA Approach, a company working to launch an exciting new medical procedure that can save hours-and dollars-in the cath lab and operating room.

Mickelsen has built, by hand, a catheter and new ablation system that could be used to treat atrial fibrillation (AF). So far the device has only been used in animal trials, but with recent funding recently announced by Boston Scientific Corporation, it is nearly ready for human trial.
The Matter of the Heart

AF is a common but serious cardiac disorder, affecting 2.5 million people in the U.S. The most common procedural treatment, ablation, can be complex, lengthy and expensive. Usually it involves opening the chest cavity or delivering catheters directly into the heart and creating scar tissue by burning cardiac tissue. But with the technique developed by IOWA Approach, the process can be completed in less than an hour rather than three to eight hours. Naturally, this is better for the patient, but it is also advantageous for hospital scheduling and helps reduce costs.


IOWA Approach’s ablation technique can be performed without opening the chest cavity. “Our catheter delivers electricity for a millionth of a second,” Mickelsen explained, so there is no heating or cooling involved in the process. “It takes a week for the lesion to heal, rather than a month that is required in current ablation procedures,” he said. “Every time I perform the current catheter-based procedure, I make a hole between the blue-blood and red-blood side of the heart. This manipulation has been associated with strokes, which concerned me so I looked for a solution that could work without putting catheters in the red-blood side of the heart and without cracking open the chest.”


Mickelsen said that doctors see many problems, and sometimes they see novel solutions to those problems.”But the time and effort it takes to effectively champion a new idea and develop the solution is often overwhelming. The ecosystem needs to be favorable for innovation to grow, and that is what I found in Iowa.”


IOWA Approach technology received its first funding from the University of Iowa. “They were willing to experiment with me,” he said. “I told them I wanted to work on technology that might have a major impact in the way we treat AF. From my perspective this was the coolest stuff I could be working on.” It is important to note, Mickelsen said, how difficult it is for physicians in training to access resources for independent research projects, but the university gave him access to funding, lab space, and the time to work on his inventions. Now he has protected time to continue his research and entrepreneurial activities.

Mickelsen started his company in 2012 and re-founded it in 2013 with co-founders John Slump and Howard Dittrich. In 2013 IOWA Approach received funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) and matching funds from Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to perform preclinical studies. The success of this research catapulted the company forward with follow-up support from IEDA and investment from the Iowa Angels funding program. Last year IOWA Approach brought on industry-experienced CEO Allen Zingeler.


The Iowa Innovation Corporation is available to assist companies like IOWA Approach as they continue their work commercializing new products and technologies in Iowa.  For more information about IOWA Approach, contact Allen Zingeler,