Dr. Robert Jarvik hardly seems to be writing a prescription for fast growth. His company's first product has been called dangerous, unreliable, and unethical. The chief executive officer of Symbion Inc. (#43) is spending much of his time trying to persuade "key opinion leaders" in Congress that artificial hearts should be implanted in humans.
Bad publicity? "People just don't understand that what we're doing is marketplace preparation," says Jarvik, the 39-year-old developer of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. Despite the clamor, the heart is getting increasing use, at least as a temporary device to keep patients alive until human-heart transplants can be arranged. And more surgical teams are visiting Symbion's Salt Lake City complex to learn the procedure. Each group's training and equipment adds up to $350,000 for Symbion.
Despite a loss of about $2.9 million in 1985, Symbion could do better this year with the introduction of two new products: an artificial ear and a ventricular assist device (VAD). The VAD is a temporary support that gives the natural heart time to recover after surgery. "Both will have better margins than the heart," notes Mariola Haggar, an analyst at L. F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin Inc. "The company should make a nominal profit by 1987."
In 1983, Jarvik broke with Dr. Willem Kolff, his mentor and Symbion's cofounder, because "I felt that we needed to push much faster and more directly toward the growth of sales and profits." He calls his strategy the "full-service-bank approach." The VAD gives customers more options in cardiac care. The Jarvik-7 and the VAD use the same Symbion power source, which costs about $48,000.
Jarvik, a tinkerer whose "lousy grades" meant he had to start medical school in Italy, relies on consultants and directors for advice on running the company. "One of Dr. Jarvik's strong suits is that he listens," says Robert Reeves, who recently resigned after serving on Symbion's board for six years. "I always thought we could bring in businessmen to shore him up if he needed business depth." They haven't had to, but Jarvik is still a technician at heart. He recently bought back the rights to a surgical stapler he invented when he was 17. "It has never been produced," he says, "so maybe I'll do it myself."