The president of University Hospitals Harrington Heart and Vascular Institute Costa is also UH’s Chief Innovation Officer, due to his passion for research and technology.
By Jennifer Proe
When Marco A. Costa, M.D., Ph.D., arrives at work each day, the only thing he knows for certain is that he has no idea how his day will go. However, there’s a good chance that he will be helping to save someone’s life, either through his work as an interventional cardiologist, or as a result of his medical research and innovation.
As president of University Hospitals Harrington Heart and Vascular Institute, Costa heads up a team of talented medical professionals who provide leading-edge cardiovascular care across 18 hospitals in the UH network, plus more than 40 outpatient clinics and at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
Costa is also UH’s Chief Innovation Officer, a position he has held since 2015 thanks to his passion for medical research and technology innovation. Costa was among the first medical professionals to pioneer the use of a device called a drug-eluting stent, which led to major advancements in the treatment of cardiac disease.
In case that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Costa can also be found teaching and mentoring the next generation of pioneering doctors as a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University. “A visiting colleague asked me how I divide my time,” says Costa. “I don’t divide it, I mix it. I might start the day in a business suit at a meeting, change into scrubs for surgery, then into a lab coat for teaching. There is always a plan, but the only thing I know is that each day the plan will be totally different.”
Costa’s success as an innovator comes from a desire to push himself out of his comfort zone, and to look for the next big idea, even if it’s outside the boundaries of his field of expertise.
Early in Costa’s medical career, when he was at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the biggest strides in cardiac care involved radiation therapy and cardiac imaging, areas in which Costa completed his Ph.D. thesis. Soon after, Johnson & Johnson began developing a microscopic drug-eluting stent, which is inserted into a narrowed, diseased coronary artery and slowly releases a drug to block cell proliferation. Costa, who had returned to his native Brazil to practice, decided to study this relatively unknown technology alongside the current treatment protocol.
“I would have bet that ultrasound would be the better, safer therapy,” says Costa. “However, we had learned that after radiation therapy, many patients were coming back to us with heart attacks. Meanwhile, angiograms of the first 15 patients with drug-eluting stents showed their coronaries to be completely clean.” This, then, was the future of cardiac care.
Perseverance and Vision
Over the years, Costa’s work has led to several patents in stem cell therapy, medical imaging, and medical device development.
“The reason to develop better technology is so that we can better care for our patients in a minimally invasive way, faster, and with much better outcomes,” says Costa. “And sometimes the innovation comes not in the technology, but in the process.” Despite Northeast Ohio’s reputation for innovative medical care, it’s something of a miracle that Costa ended up here at all. Costa’s first impression of Cleveland was formed many years ago, when he visited for several months as a medical student to observe a research project. He took time off from his summer beach vacation in Brazil, where it was 85 degrees and sunny, and arrived to snow and brutal temperatures here.
“After that, I spoke badly about Cleveland for 15 years,” says Costa, who was determined never to return.
The downfall of this plan was the fact that Costa had befriended another cardiologist at University Hospitals, Dr. Daniel Simon, who served as the Harrington Institute’s first president and is now president of UH Case Medical Center. Realizing he needed a partner of Costa’s caliber in order to keep up with patient demand, Simon convinced Costa to come visit, “just to take a look.”
Costa and his family were in the midst of a move to Boston, where Costa was on the verge of accepting a position as director of the catheterization lab at the University of Massachusetts. His wife, Erica, was clear: There would be no moving to Cleveland. However, she and the couple’s three children came along on the visit so that they could celebrate a family birthday together.
Costa recalls, “We arrived in Cleveland late at night, and got lost coming from the airport. It was not a good beginning to our visit. But when I awoke in the morning, Erica had left a note on my pillow saying, ‘I don’t know why, but I actually have a positive feeling about Cleveland. I think you should take it seriously.'” Costa is convinced God was intervening in their plans.
After changing course for Cleveland, the family initially settled in Pepper Pike for six years, then moved to Shaker Heights three years ago.
The Costas’ three children attend the Shaker schools and are involved in swimming and volleyball among other activities. Costa loves seeing the neighbor kids’ bikes piled up outside their Mercer area home on a typical Friday night.
“In Shaker, the houses have character, and the people here have character. It’s a mix of urban and suburban lifestyle, which is what we are used to, coming from bigger cities,” says Costa. “We go downtown 10 times more now than we ever used to. We go to Cavs games and concerts, or to enjoy the bridges in the Flats and eat at Coastal Tacos.”
In what spare time he might have, Costa enjoys playing basketball at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood, and Erica is involved with the Womens Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The family also found a close-knit community at St. Dominic Church. “We didn’t have that where we lived before,” says Costa. “It brings us back to how we were raised in Brazil.”
In both his personal and his professional life, Costa seems happiest on the less-taken path.
“I believe success requires risks, perseverance, and a vision,” says Costa. “I try to take the right road for the right reasons. I don’t feel comfortable being comfortable.”