Gary K. Michelson, Inventor and Philanthropist
When you hear the word, “billionaire,” what comes to mind? A person born to privilege? Maybe a trust-fund kid, or the heir to an old-moneyed family? Certainly someone ignorant to the stark realities of poverty and hardship. These generalizations may apply to some billionaires, but in the case of our founder, Gary Michelson, they couldn’t be more wrong. (1)
Gary Michelson was born in 1950’s Philadelphia to working class parents. Discord at home abounded, causing young Gary to turn to the family pet for comfort and reassurance. As he told The Jewish Journal in 2016, “I had violent parents; it was just like warfare. The only warm, living thing there that wasn’t dangerous was my boxer, Chase. He was probably what kept me sane – the only thing you could touch where you didn’t have to worry about them turning around and hitting you.” (2)
Adding to the difficulty of Gary’s home life was watching the suffering of his grandmother, with whom he was close. His grandmother had syringomyelia, a debilitating spinal disease that causes extreme back pain as well as insensitivity to temperature in the hands and feet.
Gary recalls an incident when he was seven years old where he was sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen and suddenly smelled a strange odor. His grandmother was standing at the stove and had unconsciously placed her hand on a burner. Flames licked at her fingers. Gary screamed, and she quickly submerged her hand in the sink. She hadn’t felt a thing. Gary was horrified, but his grandmother reassured him. * “One day, you’ll become a doctor, and you’ll fix me.” (3)
Driven by the power of this unforgettable moment, Gary left home at the age of seventeen determined to become a doctor. He put himself through medical school by working odd jobs: washing cars, driving a cab, and even cleaning cages at a research facility – one of several experiences which further cemented his compassion for animals. (4)
The Medical School Years
Another such experience was when he discovered, in his third year of medical school, that he was required to do a “dog lab.” A “dog lab,” basically, is the extraction of one organ per week, over the course of many weeks, from a healthy dog, with no pain medication administered to ease suffering. Sickened at the realization, Gary Michelson refused to participate and was threatened with expulsion. (5)
Even as the Dean gathered a committee to start the dismissal process, Gary was in the midst of his first invention: a surgery that saved a 10-year-old girl’s leg from amputation by transplanting a rib bone into it (5). When news spread of this groundbreaking surgery, two of the most highly regarded orthopedic surgeons in the world were moved to write letters offering placement to Gary in their residency programs. Gary’s medical school quickly changed position and decided he could stay after all. (6)
His grandmother never far from his mind, Gary Michelson continued his medical training, and eventually decided to specialize in spinal surgery (7). An extremely harsh discipline due to its low rate of success, Gary took on the challenge and began a parallel career as an inventor. He would spend his days in surgery at the hospital, and his nights working in his garage on inventions that would improve patient outcomes.
Growth as an Inventor
As he became more successful, he was able to hire fabricators to construct his devices, even having an entire machine shop dedicated to the creation and testing of his ideas. His achievements in inventing also made him a millionaire, until he successfully defended himself against a lawsuit brought by mega-company, Medtronic, over a licensing dispute. The resulting settlement in 2004 catapulted Dr. Gary Michelson into the realm of billionaire, and allowed him to begin the next phase of his life as a philanthropist. (7)
Reuniting Lost Pets
In 2005, Dr. Michelson witnessed, along with the rest of the country, horrifying images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The physical destruction and loss of human life were devastating, but so too was the loss of pet life and the sheer number of pets who could not be reunited with their families. Dr. Michelson knew this, at least, was a problem that could be addressed, and he resolved to fix it.
Michelson Found Animals Foundation was the result of this resolve, founded under the idea that every pet should be able to get back home. How? By making sure that every pet is microchipped so they could be traced back to their families.
Dr. Michelson began by donating microchips to shelters in the Los Angeles area where he lived. After a few years, though, he realized that microchipping pets was only part of the solution (9). Very frequently, microchips would be implanted into a pet, and the process would end there. For a microchip to create a successful reunion, the microchip number must be registered in a database corresponding to the pet owner’s contact information (much like a Social Security Number). Dr. Michelson saw this as an opportunity to help even more people and their pets, so in 2011 he launched the first ever, totally free microchip registry.
Incentivizing Science and Tech Programs
Another exciting innovation from MFA is Michelson Prize & Grants, an X-Prize style offering to scientists incentivizing them to research inexpensive, minimally-invasive means of pet sterilization to help mitigate the number of pets who die in shelters each year (10). So far, $15 Million in grant money has been committed to this research and Michelson Found Animals is hopeful that a solution can be brought to market within the next decade.
Now a full-time philanthropist, in addition to Michelson Found Animals Foundation, Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson, also oversee two other non-profits.The first; Michelson Medical Research Foundation (8), supports scientific innovators breaking new ground and improving existing treatments with over $100 million dollars in donations going towards a range of research, from the treatment of spinal injuries to the development of vaccines for infectious diseases. Based on a belief that collaboration between engineers, scientists, and physicians will result in better solutions for patients, the Michelson Medical Research Foundation recently donated $50 million dollars to the University of Southern California to fund the upcoming USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.
To make education more accessible, Gary Michelson set up the non-profit, Twenty Million Minds Foundation (20MM). Its initiatives include the creation of digital, interactive, college textbooks (resulting in significant savings to college students), and a program that provides remedial education to prison inmates, thereby increasing their ability to function in society once released and reducing their risk of recidivism. He also endeavors to help the next generation of inventors by giving free, online access to books, videos, and other resources on patents, copyrights, trademarks and more.
Improving the Lives of People and Pets
Future-thinking but pragmatic, Gary Michelson provides substantial monetary support to organizations currently doing life-saving work for pets. This support includes grants for spay/neuter clinics and outreach, surrender prevention counseling at local shelters, and in the last few years, a fundraising competition called the Saving Pets Challenge, where non-profit organizations in the animal welfare space compete to raise the most money and receive a substantial cash grant.
Through his enterprises thus far, Gary Michelson has improved the lives of millions of people, and millions of pets. As these programs continue to mature and succeed, even more will benefit from his persistent vision of a better future. In May 2022, he and Alya Michelson received the Inner City Law Center’s Humanitarian Award for their philanthropic impact.
- Airbnb’s Three Billionaire Cofounders And 14 Others Join Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge [2016-06-01; Kerry A. Dolan, Forbes]
- Dr. Gary K. Michelson: Inventor and life-saver [2016-03-31; Naomi Pfefferman, The Jewish Journal]
- The Intangible Advantage – Preface [20MM]
- The Los Angeles 500 – The Most Influential People in Los Angeles: Dr. Gary Michelson [August 2016; The Los Angeles Business Journal]
- Gary K. Michelson – Biography | USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience [https://michelson.usc.edu/biography/]
- Gary K. Michelson – MMRF [http://michelsonmedical.org/gary-michelson/]
- Inventors at Work: The Minds and Motivation Behind Modern Inventions [2012-10-23; Brett Stern, Apress]
- Gary Michelson Patents | Full GKM Patents Directory [http://garymichelsonpatents.com]
- Microchip Registry [Michelson Found Animals] [https://foundanimals.org/microchip-registry/]
- Inventor Michelson offers $75M for a way to sterilize pets [2008-10-15; Sharon L. Peters, USA TODAY] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-10-15-michelson-pet-sterilization_n.htm
- Transparency Talk: Gary K. Michelson joins The Giving Pledge [2016-03-15; Daniel Matz, Glasspockets.org] http://blog.glasspockets.org/2016/03/giving-pledge-michelson-20160315.html