Dr. Gary K. Michelson: The Benevolent Catalyst

Dr. Gary K. Michelson: The Benevolent Catalyst

Dr. Gary K. Michelson revolutionized spinal surgery, won a landmark lawsuit worth $1.35B, and has spent the ensuing years improving the world through his ambitious family of foundations that promote education, animal welfare, and medical research

Dr. Gary K. Michelson creates an indelible impression. Tall and sharply dressed in a dark suit, the former spinal surgeon, prolific inventor, and dedicated and dynamic philanthropist warmly welcomed CSQ into his Brentwood home recently for a lengthy afternoon conversation delving into his diverse and impactful projects. While his family is clearly the focus of his life, he continues to enthusiastically make a difference in the world for others. 

In 2014 Michelson and his wife, Alya, made a $50M gift to fund the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience at the University of Southern California. Michelson Hall, the largest building on USC’s University Park campus, standing at 190,000 sq. ft., opened in November 2017. But Michelson prefers to dwell on what’s happening inside its research labs.

Indeed, he deals in the currency of grand ideas, an approach that has earned him more than 950 patents worldwide and made him wealthy (“the 0.01 of the 1%” by his estimation) after he prevailed in a lawsuit brought against him by Medtronic. He lives modestly, for a billionaire.

Michelson and his wife, Alya, with LA County Board of Supervisors’ Hon. Mark Ridley-Thomas at USC

After the historic $1.35B Medtronic settlement, he says he stayed in the same house, and drove the same car. “It was like the money didn’t really exist, like electrons, shifting from one place and going to a bank account somewhere else.” Not surprisingly, he prefers to invest in matters of his conscience rather than ornaments of material wealth.

Since his youth, Michelson has been driven by a desire to solve problems and help the world. He doesn’t believe people change because of money. “You are who you are,” he says. “The people I know—and maybe I just know the right people—they’re giving it away. They’re very generous.” Michelson is a member of the Giving Pledge, affording him the opportunity to forge friendships with similarly minded philanthropists, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who started the Pledge, along with Eli Broad, Michael Milken, Patrick Soon-Shiong, and several hundred others who are committed to contributing a majority of their wealth to charitable causes.

Michelson, who turns 70 in January, is equally passionate and educated about the causes that demand his attention. Putting his money where his heart and mind converge, Michelson aims to solve an array of prominent problems, whether through Michelson 20MM Foundation, Michelson Found Animals, Michelson Medical Research Foundation, Michelson Runway, and other philanthropic vehicles. “If you want to do something, just do it,” he advises. “Then people will get on board.”

Self-Made Man

Born in Philadelphia, Michelson didn’t have much stability growing up; his father was abusive and the family was poor. Raised mainly by his mother and grandmother, Michelson has a vivid childhood memory of why he wanted to pursue medicine.

His grandmother suffered from a painful spinal disease that also caused insensitivity to extreme temperatures in her hands and feet. One day while in the kitchen, she placed her hand directly into the flames of a burner without realizing it until 7-year-old Michelson smelled and then saw the smoke rising from her seared skin and alerted her. “It will be ok,” she assured him. “You’ll become a doctor, and you’ll fix me.”

Being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011

After leaving home at 17, Michelson put himself through college, sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet. He earned his undergraduate degree from Temple University, then attended Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University). During his third year in medical school, Michelson refused to participate in a “dog lab” that required him to remove healthy organs from living dogs. Instead, with the prospect of expulsion hanging over his head, Michelson devised a method of surgery that saved a 10-year-old girl’s deformed leg from being amputated. The school subsequently withdrew its expulsion threat.

After completing a fellowship in spinal surgery at St. Luke’s Medical Center, in a joint program of Texas Medical Center and Baylor University, Michelson moved to Los Angeles to begin his medical career, focusing on orthopedic surgery. It was the late-1970s and spinal surgery was largely confined to two basic procedures that had low success rates: spinal decompression and spinal fusion. Michelson was advised that pursuing his specialty of choice would lead to a lifetime of patients whose maladies could only be addressed with small successes. Undaunted, he forged ahead.

Early on, his thoughts rested squarely on the needs of his patients rather than on quickly building his practice. “I was never in the position when I was younger to do much that was philanthropic other than treating patients,” Michelson explains almost apologetically. When he worked for others, there was always the question of which patients were and weren’t paying. When it was his practice, he specifically asked the office manager to not tell him either way.

Over the next two decades, he developed new surgical procedures, implants, and instruments that revolutionized spinal surgery, making it far less invasive and much more effective. His procedures, developed for the most common spinal disorders as well as the most debilitating, have significantly improved patient comfort, recovery time, and results.

By 2005, he was no longer practicing medicine, and the prospect of investing his time and wealth appealed to Michelson’s sense of greater good.

Taking A Stand

The Michelson Medical Research Foundation, seeded with $100M, was launched to address some of the key medical issues consistently falling through the bureaucratic cracks of government, big pharma, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“It is true that big pharma spends money but they’re not driven by what would create the most good for the most people,” Michelson says. “Neither big pharmaceutical companies nor the government, for example, work to develop a vaccine against the parasitic worms because the only customers are poor people in sub-Saharan Africa who have no means to pay for it.”

Michelson spoke movingly about the plight of those afflicted by parasitic worms in his previous conversation with CSQ in 2013. More than 1 billion of the world’s population is afflicted by these parasites, and in 2015, Michelson received the Albert B. Sabin Humanitarian Award for being a primary underwriter of the Sabin Institute’s research program developing a vaccine against the worms.

Speaking at the Michelson Found Animals Foundation (MFAF) Gala in 2015

One issue that Michelson says is hampering the funding of breakthrough medical research by the NIH is reverse-ageism. “If you look at all the people who have won Nobel Prizes in the sciences related to medicine, they almost all had done their greatest work before 35,” Michelson says. “Empirical evidence says that the most brilliant, imaginative work is done earlier in life.” Michelson offers Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example: The physicist first developed it in his 20s.

“The NIH has algorithms that inform their decisions on what gets funded. If you’re younger than 35, you’re not getting funded,” Michelson says, citing James Allison, who in 2018 won the Nobel Prize for his role in developing checkpoint inhibitors—one of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer treatment—as a brilliant researcher who couldn’t get NIH funding early in his career.

In determining priorities based solely on allowing brilliant minds to pursue innovative solutions, Michelson’s considerable hands, which he affectionately calls “lobster claws,” are not tied by such constraints. Nor is he bound to supporting only medical causes.

Nourishing Minds, Saving Pets, Planting Trees

In 2008, Michelson came across a story about Santa Ana College where the main reason students who got a B or better average in the first year didn’t come back for the second year was because they couldn’t afford the books. He also read that the community college’s teachers agreed to reach into their own pockets, giving $500 each to help these students buy books and finish their studies. Michelson wrote a check for $50,000 to fully fund the project.

“I didn’t feel good about it, in fact, I felt bad about it because I didn’t feel it was nearly enough. It was just a temporary fix for one of 112 community colleges in California,” Michelson recalls.

To answer a larger need, he started the Michelson 20 Million Minds (20MM) nonprofit foundation. Its first initiative was to create a library of “super-high quality, open-license, freely downloadable, interactive college textbooks.”

“Our goal is to make higher education in particular more affordable, accessible, and effective,” he says. The organization, whose mission is to catalyze innovation in education, has also developed a remedial education program for prisoners. “In California, prisons are the most expensive item next to education,” he says.

The organization sees the education of the prison population as a proactive step for a healthier and more productive society. “You can teach at least one two things to anyone of at least average intelligence: pattern recognition and coding,” Michelson says. Autonomous cars use pattern recognition, he explains, and there will always be jobs for people who can execute programming code. “This gives felons marketable skills and a way to make a living,” thereby reducing recidivism.

Another underserved area that has captured Michelson’s attention is the pet population. During 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Michelson watched reports of numerous people who were unable to reunite with their lost pets in the aftermath of the storm. “Cats and dogs were stranded on roofs and separated from owners,” recalls Michelson. “The painless insertion of a small microchip in an animal solves this problem.”

Moved to action, he started the Michelson Found Animals Foundation, launching a free, nationwide lifelong microchip registration for pet owners. People can register for free; the foundation manages the site, and if a pet is found, the owner is notified via email, phone, and text.

Found Animals is also researching single-dose sterility methods for animals to address the companion pet overpopulation problem. Michelson calls single-dose sterility the “holy grail” of animal control, a responsibility that has fallen on local municipalities since the end of World War II, when the concept of pet adoptions took hold in communities across the country.

The Michelsons at the MFAF Gala in 2015

Michelson continues to branch out in his philanthropic pursuits, personally funding two major reforestation programs responsible for planting more than 7 million trees, including 3.5 million teak trees in Costa Rica.

Making such a direct impact, no matter where in the world, appeals to Michelson. He recalls the wisdom of Peter Ueberroth, who made the 1984 Olympic Games notably profitable. “Peter said, ‘Sometimes you’re better off doing things in a for-profit structure with a charitable end.’”

Rubbing Shoulders with Giants

Michelson says the Giving Pledge lets him learn from some of the world’s most successful and brilliant minds. He’s had deep conversations with impressive people, but none more so, he says, than Michael Milken.

“Nobody walks away from meeting Mike Milken without having it affect you,” Michelson says. “He’s been so generous with his time. I could probably give you 10 rules that inform my giving decisions that I learned from Mike. And I’m not the only one.” For example: “‘Never fund something that will get funded anyway.’” You must have a specific set of far-reaching goals to enact transformative change. “The truly imaginative, out-of-the-box, disruptive research doesn’t get funded,” Michelson says.

In partnership with some of the most advanced thinkers and charitable philanthropists in the world—including Arie Belldegrun, Eric Lefkofsky, Meyer Luskin, Mike Milken, Sean Parker, and others—Michelson has been working for two years to create the world’s first center dedicated to decoding the human immune system, which will be hosted at a Los Angeles university.

“Nowhere in the entire world has anybody decided to ‘de-silo’ all of these brilliant people from all these specialties to come together to deeply decode the human immune system,” he says. “This center will truly create a field of dreams for everyone interested in vaccinology, immunology, and immunotherapy.” Immunotherapy is revolutionizing the treatment of cancer today, Michelson says.

At the grand opening of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent
Bioscience

Proud Family Man

Michelson’s enthusiasm is infectious, as is his pride in his family. At different times during the afternoon, he is joined by his wife, Alya, who is also actively involved in their philanthropies, his children, and his two rescue dogs, a pit bull, and a whippet.

In terms of his legacy, Michelson looks to his brother, whom he calls “conspicuously brilliant,” for inspiration. “When he had his first daughter, he took everything—all of his diplomas and awards—down off the wall. I asked him why, and he said, ‘That’s not what I care about. I care about being a great father.’”

While Michelson has a lot of cares on his own plate, he always has time for his brood. He’s proven that his character and motivations will not be swayed for any price.

Invoking the words of country singer Randy Travis when asked about legacy, Michelson says, “‘It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind when you go.’”

Gary K. Michelson

Gary K. Michelson

Founder | Michelson 20MM Foundation, Michelson Found Animals Foundation, Michelson Medical Research Foundation

Age
69

Hometown
Philadelphia

Family
Married

Residence
Los Angeles

Car
Honda Civic

Book
THE BOOK OF FORGIVING BY DESMOND TUTU AND MPHO ANDREA TUTU

Education
M.D., BOARD CERTIFIED IN ORTHOPEDIC SURGERY, FELLOWSHIP TRAINED IN SPINAL SURGERY

First Job
“SHOVELING SNOW, WASHING CARS, AND MOWING LAWNS AS A BOY.”

other philanthropies supported
“BEYOND OUR OWN FOUNDATIONS, MY WIFE AND I SUPPORT A HOST OF OTHER FOUNDATIONS. HISTORICALLY THESE HAVE INCLUDED MANY DIFFERENT PROGRAMS AT VARIOUS UNIVERSITIES, BROAD SUPPORT OF ANIMAL WELFARE AND WILDLIFE ORGANIZATIONS, HELP TO THE HOMELESS, PRISON REFORM, PUBLIC POLICY POLLING AND EDUCATION, AMONG OTHERS.”

Can’T MISS EVENTS, CONFERENCES, SUMMITS
“[THOSE] THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO MY WIFE AND I WOULD INCLUDE THE ANNUAL GATHERING OF THE MEMBERS OF THE GIVING PLEDGE, AND THE FORBES PHILANTHROPY SUMMIT. I HAVE BEEN A REGULAR ATTENDEE AT THE CSQ EVENTS, WHICH REALLY HAVE BEEN GREAT.”

Mentors
“I REALLY DID NOT HAVE ANY EARLY ON AND PERHAPS THAT CONTRIBUTED TO MY WALKING MY OWN UNIQUE PATH, AS OPPOSED TO TRYING TO FOLLOW IN SOMEONE ELSE’S FOOTSTEPS. LATER, AND AT EXACTLY THE RIGHT TIME, I WAS BLESSED TO RECEIVE THE GUIDANCE AND FRIENDSHIP OF MICHAEL MILKEN. IN ADDITION TO ALL OF THE GOOD THINGS THAT I COULD SAY ABOUT MICHAEL, I LIKE BEING AROUND MICHAEL BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE TO WASTE ANY TIME TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHO THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM IS.”

NotabLE UPCOMING PROJECTS
“I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS IN WORKING WITH AN OUTSTANDING LOS ANGELES UNIVERSITY TO CREATE WHAT WOULD BE THE LEADING CENTER IN THE WORLD FOR DEEPLY DECODING THE WORKINGS OF THE HUMAN IMMUNE SYSTEM, WHICH CUTS ACROSS ALL HUMAN DISEASES AND AGING ITSELF, FOR THE PURPOSE OF RAPIDLY DEVELOPING EFFECTIVE VACCINES FOR THE PREVENTION OF CANCER, HEART DISEASE, ALZHEIMER’S, OTHERS, AND, YES, EVEN AGING. WHAT MAKES THIS EFFORT EVEN MORE EXCEPTIONAL IS THAT IT WILL INVOLVE A NUMBER OF PHILANTHROPISTS COMING TOGETHER IN A LARGE WAY TO UNDERWRITE THIS.”


MICHELSON MEDICAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION (MMRF), MICHELSON FOUND ANIMALS FOUNDATION (MFAF), MICHELSON 20MM FOUNDATION (20MM)

Years Founded
1995 / 2005 / 2010

Number of members
MFAF: 76 EMPLOYEES; MORE THAN 800 VOLUNTEERS / 20MM: 6 EMPLOYEES

notable past projects
“THERE HAVE PROBABLY BEEN ABOUT 40 OR SO PROJECTS FUNDED VIA THE RESEARCH MEDICINE FOUNDATION.” / MFAF: MICHELSON PRIZE AND GRANTS, SAVING PETS CHALLENGE, LEAP VENTURE STUDIO / “MICHELSON 20MM WAS A FOUNDING FUNDER OF OPENSTAX, A PUBLISHER OF FREE, HIGH QUALITY, AND OPENLY LICENSED TEXTBOOKS INTENDED TO EXPAND EDUCATIONAL ACCESS AND TRANSFORM A BROKEN HIGHER EDUCATION PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. THE CURRENT CATALOGUE OF 29 TITLES HAS NOW BEEN ADOPTED AT 48% OF POSTSECONDARY INSTITUTIONS IN THE U.S.”

notable upcoming events
MFAF: ANNUAL GALA AND LEADER IN ANIMAL WELFARE AWARDS; ANNUAL POLICY FORUM / 20MM: “WE ARE A FOUNDING PARTNER OF THE INAUGURAL COHORT OF THE USC ROSSIER EDVENTURES PROGRAM, A VENTURE LAB CURRENTLY HOSTING 16 STARTUPS WORKING ON A WIDE RANGE OF PROBLEMS SPANNING FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD TO LIFELONG LEARNING. FOUNDERS WILL BE PRESENTING THEIR PITCHES TO INVESTORS AND PARTNERS AT A CULMINATING DEMO DAY AT USC ON FEB. 8, 2019.”

notable upcoming projects
MFAF: LEAP VENTURE STUDIO, PROGRAM 2 / 20MM: “WE ARE PREPARING TO LAUNCH COHORT 3 OF THE MICHELSON RUNWAY EDTECH ACCELERATOR WHERE WE HAVE INVESTED IN AND CONTINUE TO SUPPORT MISSION-ALIGNED, SEED-STAGE STARTUPS WITH THE POTENTIAL TO POSITIVELY IMPACT EDUCATIONAL ACCESS, EFFICACY, AND EQUITY. THE PROGRAM, WHICH WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO FOCUS ON THE HIGHER EDUCATION AND FUTURE OF WORK MARKETS, WILL OPEN APPLICATIONS FOR COHORT 3 IN FEBRUARY 2019 TO EXPAND ON ITS CURRENT 18 COMPANY PORTFOLIO.”

total number of grants given
“MICHELSON RESEARCH FOUNDATION WAS FOUNDED WITH AN INITIAL GIFT FROM ME FOR $100M. WE HAVE CONTRIBUTED ADDITIONAL FUNDS. THE LARGEST GRANT TO A SINGLE MEDICAL RESEARCH ORGANIZATION WAS FOR $3M. OTHER THAN MEDICAL RESEARCH THAT WE ARE OURSELVES CONDUCTING, THE LARGEST RECENT GRANTS WERE FOR $350,000 AND THE AWARDING OF THREE YOUNG RESEARCHERS GRANTS FOR $450,000. THE $50M GIFT TO USC TO CREATE THE CONVERGENT BIOSCIENCE CENTER WAS DIRECTLY FROM ALYA AND ME AS WE DID NOT WANT TO DIMINISH THE CORPUS OF THE FOUNDATION.” / MFAF: “A TOTAL OF 37 SCIENTIFIC PROJECTS HAVE BEEN FUNDED BY THE MICHELSON PRIZE AND GRANTS PROGRAM AND NEARLY $10M HAS BEEN ALLOCATED TO ANIMAL WELFARE GROUPS.”