Mark Darrah, president and CEO of Athena GTX, demonstrates how the
WiMed medical monitor will be used on patients.The company landed a $2.4
million defense contract to develop a production facility in Des Moines. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Mark Darrah, president and CEO of Athena GTX, demonstrates how the WiMed medical monitor will be used on patients.The company landed a $2.4 million defense contract to develop a production facility in Des Moines. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Twenty-five years ago, Mark Darrah and his wife, Lyn, left the state because they were unable to use their advanced biomedical technology degrees in Iowa.

Now they're moving their company from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to Des Moines, with plans to launch production of cutting-edge medical monitoring devices for the military. Not coincidentally, their company, Athena GTX, plans to hire a number of graduates from Iowa's engineering schools.

Last month, Congress approved $2.4 million in funding for Athena, which plans to open a Des Moines office and manufacturing plant by February. By mid-2008, military medics in Iraq and Afghanistan could be using Athena's lightweight monitoring devices to relay injured soldiers' vital signs to doctors as they're being evacuated for emergency care.

The portable devices have grabbed the attention of the U.S. Army because they're less than half the size and weight of comparable monitoring units now on the market. Athena will move forward with further clinical testing of the devices early next year. Within the next six weeks, the company plans to deliver a prototype of an even more compact version of the device to U.S. Army Special Forces for use by its soldiers.

Athena also has its eyes on the civilian market, where the devices could give emergency first-responders a powerful new tool to monitor accident patients' conditions.

Known as the Wireless Medical Monitoring System, or WiMed, the device can be attached by Velcro to a patient's blood-pressure cuff to relay blood pressure, pulse rate, blood-oxygen levels and electrocardiogram signals to any wireless-equipped computer or personal data assistant. Using the system, doctors can track up to 250 injured soldiers to perform triage on the patients while they're still en route.

The company, which now has eight employees, will hire between 10 and 15 people locally early next year, filling high-paying engineering positions as well as some assembly-line and support jobs.

"This is a unique opportunity for engineers to be on the cutting edge of future technologies and help save lives right here in Iowa," Mark Darrah said.

The devices, which are just over three inches wide and two inches high and weigh less than a pound, will replace units currently used by the Army that are about the size of five laptop computers stacked on each other. The company has begun taking resumes and will begin interviewing by early February, when interior work is completed on a 5,500-square-foot office space it has leased at Walnut Woods Business Center, 3620 S.W. 61st St.

"We hope to be fully staffed up about the same time that the Senate appropriation comes through the cycle in the March-April timeframe," he said. About three staff members will move from California, and a few will also open an office in Texas, where the Army Office of Surgical Research will sponsor clinical trials early next year. "Hopefully, we'll also be doing some clinical trials in the Des Moines trauma centers," Darrah said.

"We've already visited them and briefed them on the product."

Darrah, who like his wife is an Iowa State University graduate, said finding an area with a better quality of life in which to raise their children was one of the reasons they decided to move the company to Iowa. They also have family in Bettendorf and Norwalk.

"We travel all over the nation, so it made sense to be close to family," he said.

Though they could have chosen Ames or Iowa City, locating in the state's capital also made sense, as did locating in a larger city with trauma centers for potential clinical trials.

Athena's funding is part of $77 million approved for Iowa companies last month as part of the 2008 defense authorization bill. Athena approached members of Iowa's congressional delegation a year ago to seek funding to move the company to Iowa.

"I am pleased that the Congress was able to support Athena GTX in the Defense Appropriations bill," Sen. Tom Harkin said in a release. "Their Wireless Medical Monitoring WiMed System is essential to providing better triage care for our service members in the battlefield."

Darrah launched the company, initially called GTXtreme, eight years ago to develop products in the terrorism-response market.

"This was before the 9/11 attacks, during the timeframe of the Oklahoma City bombing, which put us on the map," he said. "We started doing mass-casualty work and monitoring work. We eventually moved into importing a protective suit out of Austria for first-responders for chemical and biological defense. That business evolved into a research arm we called Athena. We put the two names together for some brand identity, and just recently shortened it to Athena GTX."

Athena's wireless medical monitoring device will be the first product the company will take into production itself, rather than researching and then brokering it to other companies, Darrah said. Though approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn't required for the Army's applications, the clinical trials will pave the way for FDA approval for eventual use by doctors to make "lifesaving intervention" decisions before patients arrive at the emergency room, he said.

The company's future direction is to build smart monitors that will analyze data from the devices to make decisions about a patient in advance of events such as a drop in blood pressure.

"That's the next generation of monitors that we'll be working on, and a lot of that work will go on right here in Iowa," he said.