We have been conditioned to expect access to information, instantaneously. Dr. David Agus, of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, embraces the aspect of modern technology that gives the lay person the ability to monitor his health by performing tests that used to require an in-office visit. Within minutes of sitting down with him in his Beverly Hills office, the good doctor is demonstrating an app that performs an EKG (just aim the camera at the palms of the hands) and another that measures pulse merely by pointing your phone’s camera at the subject’s face. It’s an eye-opening peek into the capabilities that exist at one’s fingertips.
Agus, 49, co-founded the genetics company Navigenics and today splits time between his on-campus research lab and his office at USC’s Westside Cancer Center and Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. Two to three days a week, his mornings begin at 3 a.m. to prep for his appearances as a regularly featured expert on “CBS This Morning.”
“It is difficult to get someone to do something today that will help him or her 20 years from now,” Agus explains, adding rhetorically, “How do you get people to think about not just tomorrow but today?”
The Journey WEst
Originally from Baltimore, Agus earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his MD from University of Pennsylvania; he completed his residency at Johns Hopkins and his oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
A methodical and logical man, Agus needed some convincing before deciding to pick up and move out west. Lithely inserting substantial names into the conversation the way a chef employs fine spices, he reveals, “Andy Grove told me, ‘You can stay on the East Coast and hit singles and do well, but if you come out West you can swing for the fences and even if you strike out, you can start again.” Agus took the advice of Grove, who at the time was the CEO of Intel Corporation. His ultimate goal, Agus says, is “not to make an incremental difference, [but] to make a big difference.”
Agus spent nearly a decade at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA before being informed that his program would be discontinued. Being responsible for a 40-person team, a wave of panic and uncertainty set in before supporter and dear friend Larry Ellison stepped in. “Larry sent a check for $5 million and said, ‘Wherever you go, this will help.’”
Thanks to a warm introduction from Eli Broad, Agus met USC Provost C. L. Max Nikias and an enduring connection was made. With USC in his corner, Agus began to instill his brilliance and his beliefs on the public at large. He has written two New York Times bestsellers, “The End of Illness” and “A Short Guide to a Long Life,” both of which have been translated into 30 languages. “Short Guide” holds the distinction of being the most-read health book in the U.S. among men.
The Big Picture
Ultimately, Agus’ goal is to drive change on a cultural and societal level. In 2007, he co-founded Navigenics, a genetics company that uses genetic testing to help people determine their individual risk for dozens of health conditions. The company was acquired by Life Technologies in 2012.
With regard to empowering the common man to control his destiny through awareness, Agus says, “We have to get back to thinking forward. Get people to think about tomorrow,” he urges,“whether it is avoiding what they’ve been doing, or starting to do something different.”
Agus has lucid ideas on how to approach this issue. The avenue is technology (freshly paved). But the tried-and-true vehicle is knowledge. “Education is how we get there,” he says. “When you explain to someone the ramifications of sitting all day and say, ‘Don’t you want to play with your grandkids?’ they’re going to get up and move.”
As an oncologist on the front lines of the war on cancer, Agus faces failure regularly. In one of the afternoon’s most raw moments, he describes the peaks and valleys of his profession thusly: “It happens on a micro level daily when I lose the war on cancer, and my patients lose. I face failure several times a week. But I pick up and keep moving on, learning from each experience.”
Even in the midst of heart-rending disappointments and setbacks, he points out, “Every time I fail I want to know why, I want to know what happened, and I have to get better at what I do.”
Agus’ most endearing quality is the mixture of pride and humility with which he carries himself. His pride urges him to share his story and his success with the world, and his humility urges him to do so in the right way. An unpolished public speaker in the late 1990s, he forced himself to continually address groups, first at the bequest of various Silicon Valley CEOs, then hospital staffs across the nation, the World Economic Forum, and national television several times a week. Today, when Agus speaks, people learn forward. “When they listen and they get it, you’re going to change lives.”
Agus counts visionaries such as Steven Spielberg, Mark Benioff, Larry Ellison, Sumner Redstone, and Steve Jobs as mentors, friends, and even patients (he was in charge of Jobs’ health care during the last five years of his life).
In 2012, the inaugural Rebels With A Cause charity benefit attracted a $3.5 million donation from Redstone to Agus’ research; this March, special honoree Ellison capped off the evening by pledging $4.5 million.
Agus embraces the responsibility that comes with such generous monetary support. “They do [give] because they get it and they care…their donations inspire me. These people put their hard-earned dollars behind this, and I need to make it work.”
Professor of Medicine and Engineering, University of Southern California
Residence Beverly Hills
Family Wife, Amy Povich; daughter, Sydney (16); son, Miles (14)
Education Princeton, University of Pennsylvania
Philanthropies Closest To His Heart Laurene Jobs’ College Track, Rebels With A Cause
Local Arts Destination Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Artist Neil Young