The Michelson Medical Research Foundation was created to enable researchers to translate ideas into therapies that make an impact—as quickly as possible. Over the course of three decades, the foundation has given vital boosts to people and programs through programmatic support, research prizes, strategic investments, and other tools.
Michelson Medical Research Foundation funding has contributed to the fight against infectious and degenerative diseases, advanced new surgical technologies, promoted the ethical treatment of animals in medicine—and much more.
Even as a child, Gary Michelson was infinitely curious about how things worked and uncommonly sensitive to the needs of others. Raised by his mother and grandmother in Philadelphia, he was exposed to serious disorders at a young age—his grandmother suffered from syringomyelia, a debilitating spinal deformity. Its disruptions to his grandmother’s nervous system caused her hand, while resting on a hot stove, to catch fire without her noticing. Witnessing this was a pivotal event in his young life—and he began formulating a plan to help people afflicted with similar infirmities.
He left home at 17 determined to become a doctor. He put himself through Temple University and medical school at Drexel University working odd jobs: washing cars, driving a cab, and even cleaning cages at a research facility—one of several experiences that cemented his compassion for animals. Constantly searching for advanced techniques and breakthrough approaches for healing, he developed his first invention during medical school: a surgery that saved a 10-year-old girl’s leg from amputation.
Following a surgical fellowship at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, Dr. Michelson entered private practice in California as an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal surgery. Over the next 25 years, he gained world-renown as a surgical innovator and the most prolific inventor in medical history—with more than 990 patents worldwide issued to date.
In the field of spinal surgery, where outcomes are unpredictable and recovery often long and painful, Dr. Michelson’s revolutionary advancements in procedures, instruments, and implants consistently led to better patient outcomes and significantly reduced postsurgical pain, blood loss, complications, and recovery time. The surgical techniques and materials he developed remain the industry standard around the world.
In 2005, after selling his patents to medical device company Medtronic, those proceeds, together with the resolution of related intellectual property litigation, earned him a place on the Forbes 400 as a self-made billionaire. The litigation, which established new precedents in the field of patent law, later became a stimulus for Dr. Michelson to create a comprehensive textbook on the subject, The Intangible Advantage: Understanding Intellectual Property in the New Economy, which he released digitally free of charge. Later, he developed an undergraduate college course, the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Intellectual Property, which has been adopted by colleges and universities throughout the United States.
This inspired Dr. Michelson to create the Michelson 20MM Foundation, which funds the dissemination of free, peer-reviewed, open-license digital textbooks for essential college general education courses. These textbooks—now used in half of all U.S. colleges and universities and in more than 70 countries—have saved students hundreds of millions of dollars while sharing topflight knowledge. Among its related initiatives, 20MM also provides digital textbooks for remedial education of individuals serving time in prison.
After retiring from private practice, Dr. Michelson’s passion pivoted exclusively to venture philanthropy, furthering his philosophy that active, disruptive philanthropy that shares knowledge and advances high-risk research can change the world. That same year, he made an introductory donation of $100 million to the Michelson Medical Research Foundation (which does not accept outside donations).
As a medical student, he was nearly expelled over his objection to removing healthy organs from living dogs in a surgical lab. His lifelong love of animals led to a new philanthropic endeavor, the Michelson Found Animals Foundation. This Los Angeles-based animal welfare organization provides grants for the rescue and placement of shelter animals, operates adopt-and-shop centers for homeless pets, provides free microchips, subsidizes stationary and mobile low- and no-cost spay/neuter clinics, and funds the $25 million Michelson Grant for the development of nonsurgical sterilization for cats and dogs. Through its various programs and services, the Michelson Found Animals Foundation has assisted more than 1.5 million companion animals since 2005.
In 2014, the Michelsons gave $50 million to the University of Southern California to fund creation of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, joining together some of the best and brightest scientists, researchers, and engineers from around the world to collaborate on solutions to several of the most pressing public health issues of our time. This unique interdisciplinary research site serves as a model for other prominent research universities, bringing the world closer to the medical breakthroughs that will define the 21st century.
Among his many awards, citations, and accomplishments, Dr. Michelson is one of only a handful of individuals to be inducted into both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and National Academy of Inventors. In 2006, he was recognized as the world’s leading scientist of spinal research by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Among a group of prominent inventors who supported the America Invents Act of 2011, he was invited to the White House by President Obama to witness the signing of that historic legislation. In 2015, he was awarded both the Albert B. Sabin Humanitarian Award for his contributions toward neglected disease vaccine research, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from B’nai B’rith International for his leadership, philanthropy, and humanitarian endeavors. He also received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (alongside actors Will Ferrell and Dame Helen Mirren) at USC’s 134th Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2017.
Dr. Michelson lives in California with his wife, Alya, their three children, and their two rescued dogs. The Michelsons are active members of the Giving Pledge, a campaign founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet that encourages the wealthiest individuals and couples to contribute the majority of their fortune to philanthropic causes. The Michelsons have pledged to give away 90 percent of their wealth.
Alya Michelson was born Alevtina Schepetina in Oryol, Russia. A gifted student with a passion for information, she began her career as a journalist at an early age. While still in high school, she freelanced for various outlets, including a cultural program on local station Russkoe Radio. She studied journalism at Lomonosov Moscow State University’s School of Radio and Television, graduating in 2005.
During her college years, Ms. Michelson served as a correspondent for Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, covering the political, military, and business beats. Despite the lack of journalistic freedoms, she strove to provide the public with crucial information.
Her in-depth coverage of the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk and of the Beslan school massacre helped put these tragedies into perspective for the Russian people. This work also brought her to the attention of the Russian government, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, which helped her become a military correspondent.
Winning awards for her military coverage, Ms. Michelson next took the position of RIA correspondent at the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. She then moved on to RIA Novosti’s Tokyo bureau. There, she developed an interest in Japanese culture and society, eventually becoming a member of the Russian Japanologist Association.
In 2006, she entered the world of independent journalism, freelancing as a correspondent for TV station Vesti 24 (now Russia 24), writing for the independent newspaper Kommersant, and serving as a radio news presenter. She also enrolled in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, earning a master’s degree in economics in 2008.
Ms. Michelson then pivoted to politics. In 2009, she served as press secretary to Valery Yazev, vice speaker of the Duma. In 2010, she headed the media department of the Supporters of United Russia. And from 2011 to 2012, she served as a news presenter for the state-run radio station Mayak.
In 2013, she married Dr. Gary Michelson and moved to the United States. By this time, he was already a full-time philanthropist and head of Michelson Philanthropies. Alongside her husband, Ms. Michelson became an integral player in the couple’s foundations.
The Michelsons live in the Los Angeles area and have three children. They have signed the Giving Pledge, an initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett calling on the wealthy to give most of their fortunes away to charitable causes.
In addition to her philanthropic work, Ms. Michelson began a second career as a musician and singer-songwriter—although her passion for melody dates back to her youthful days of studying at the Oryol Musical School. Her single, “American Beauty” hit No. 15 on the charts in February 2020.
Ms. Michelson’s other passions include oil painting, ballet dancing, snow skiing, slalom water skiing, and gourmet cooking. She is fluent in four languages: English, Russian, Japanese, and Ukrainian.
© 2020 Gary K. Michelson