Last fall Kristine Fortman became the top executive at one of the state's most active health care research organizations, the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, with the goal of growing the endowment and pushing new medical research while keeping the storied organization nimble and responsive. Fortman came to the nonprofit following stints with Medtronic's cardiac devices division and the company foundation, and before that the HealthPartners research foundation. A Roseville native, Fortman, 47, wants to see the Heart Institute Foundation continue to capitalize on its independence and size to advance knowledge about medical technology and drugs at a time when Americans are getting earlier access to experimental treatments. With assets of almost $25 million and an operational budget of $10 million, the foundation has more than 175 research studies ongoing, including some of the earliest implants of nonsurgical, catheter-delivered heart valves and pacemakers in the nation.

Q: The Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation is next to Allina's Abbott Northwestern Hospital in south Minneapolis. But the foundation is run independent of the health system, right?

A: We are a separate 501(c)3. We are not Allina employees, we are employees of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. We lease this space on campus because it is critical for us to be right by the heart hospital and the clinic. [But] the physicians are our primary researchers, and they are employees of Allina.

Q: Why is it important to be independent of Allina?

A: I call it the "Just Right" factor — we're not too big and we're not too small. We're just right. And with that size, just under 100 employees at the foundation, it allows us to act independently, to be nimble, to be responsive.

I think we've all experienced it in different ways. I loved Medtronic, but it was huge, and then it got even bigger. And it was hard to move things forward. I think Allina has wonderful things, like access to all of this patient data that is valuable and helpful in informing a standard of care. But with that size comes a kind of slowdown factor. There is more red tape, more processes. And we're just on the edge of that, where we have a wonderful master agreement with Allina on how we can share data. We work with them hand-in-hand. But because of our size and our focus, we can move that much more quickly and easily.

Q: Last year a patient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital became the first person in the U.S. to get a new kind of mitral heart valve implanted without traditional surgery, through a research trial at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. That patient was among the first in the world to get the experimental device. Do you think that's a sign that U.S. patients are getting earlier access to newer technologies?

A: My perception is that indeed we are getting that access earlier than we were. Throughout all of my research experience to date, there's always been a lot of complaining, about, well, it's happening in Europe, why aren't we doing it here? Do I have to go over to Germany or wherever it is to have the device that I want?

Q: Which can be galling, because so many devices are invented in the U.S. The Tendyne mitral valve implanted last year was invented in Roseville.

A: I think the Tendyne example is a great example. And it's kind of a personal example for us, as an organization, where there was early adoption and we were able to be a part of that uniquely because of our ability to move quickly and have the right expertise. So I like the trend we are seeing. I think it's the right trend. There's always, wherever you go, it's that responsible risk-taking.

Q: Some medical research is sponsored by companies, and other projects are designed by doctors and funded independently. How would you like to see the balance between commercially sponsored research and investigator-directed research at the foundation?

A: I think both are really important and necessary for us. I would love to grow our investigator-initiated research. I think that's where innovation sits, and that's what I love about this place. We have all of the tools right here to do really good research, and we have all of these physicians who have a high number of patients they are seeing day in, day out. These questions come to their mind, as they are caring for these individuals. … What's unique about the Minneapolis Heart Institute and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation is that then they come to us and they ask the question.

We're working on building an innovation fund, kind of seed money. So when those critical questions come up, we can respond quickly to being able to put the resources toward it to answer that question. So, I think sponsored [corporate] research will always happen. The clinical trials industry will drive that, and we know that it needs to happen. When it is the right area for us to add value, definitely we want to engage. We want to engage on the med-tech side, on the pharma side, all of that, there is so much possibility yet in the quality of care and standard of care. … And we have the resources to be able to answer those investigator-initiated research. And that's what we're always kind of trying to build and be responsive to. I want to grow investigator-initiated research capacity.