November 3, 2011

Silicon Valley Mercury News

Local entrepreneur has vision for saving lives

When Mitch Levinson was a boy growing up in Sacramento, he enjoyed learning about everything.

"I had trouble focusing on any one thing," he said, "though by college I knew the world was going to be run by technology."

Levinson, 51, a longtime Pleasanton resident, graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in mechanical engineering. Though he considered careers in journalism, law, and business, he went to work for Hewlett Packard where he helped develop the first color thermal inkjet print cartridge.

After five years with HP, Levinson began climbing the corporate ladder with medical firms such as Baxter, Nellcor, BioSurgical, and Thermage.

Along the way, he found his niche as a medical devices entrepreneur, and in September 2005 he was invited by venture capitalists to lead the creation of Zeltiq Aesthetics.

That company's technology selectively reduces stubborn bulges of fat that may not respond to diet or exercise. He located the new company in Pleasanton.

At Zeltiq, Levinson secured additional venture capital financing and hired a core team that created a detailed plan for each stage of the start-up, from product development through commercialization.

"I'm proud of the team because in a few short years we built a world-class company," Levinson said.

By mid-2010, Zeltiq was a leader in non-invasive fat removal, and just last month the firm held its initial public offering with a market capitalization over $400 million.

While a successful IPO might prompt some to take a break from the roller coaster of stress and euphoria of a start-up, Levinson loves the environment of emerging firms. He enjoys the challenge of building a team and taking a concept to market. He is already leading the charge with a new medical device venture, his fifth start-up.

"The company is called Cerebrotech," Levinson said. "The technology comes out of UC Berkeley, and it can non-invasively monitor the fluid levels of a patient's brain after a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or after brain surgery."

Levinson said the device is similar to an athletic headband, but with sensors that detect changes in brain fluids due to bleeding or edema. Patients will wear the device during their hospital stay.

"Today, patients with a brain injury undergo a CT scan or an MRI," Levinson said, adding that this provides only a snapshot in time. "Our device provides an ongoing report in real time."

If the device detects significant bleeding or edema, neurology medical staff can be alerted many hours earlier than they can today, allowing early intervention to prevent further brain damage.

Levinson notes that the cost of the device to hospitals will be repaid many times by reducing current costs associated with CT scans, MRIs, intensive care stays and emergency measures. "We'll reduce health care costs and, in many cases, save lives," he said.

Cerebrotech's device, which is now undergoing clinical testing, is expected to be available in a few years once Levinson guides the technology through the many steps involved in the development of a medical device.

"It will take a team," he said, noting that a start-up company's success is only as good as its employees.

"The first step to creating a strong team is a thorough hiring process," he said. "I always do extensive reference checks, and I look for people not only with technical skills but also a strong work ethic, a collaborative approach, and a passion for developing products that help people."

Since passion begins with the top employee, and given Levinson's impressive track record, there is little doubt Cerebrotech has the right leader for the job.