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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.’”