Forbes • September 11th, 2008
Michelson did not recover from waging the legal battle, he says, until he stopped hating his enemies at Medtronic. “Vengeance is gnawing on a leg and looking down and realizing it’s your own,” he says, quoting another spiritual guidebook. Michelson says he was unable to sleep well for four years, had to give up his medical practice, got divorced (he had married in 2000) and developed high blood pressure. His personal life appears to remain unmoored. He was recently engaged, but his fiancée broke it off three weeks before the wedding. He’d like kids but fears he’s getting too old to be around for long enough. He lives in a mostly unfurnished home in one of Los Angeles’ canyons.
After the last big case was settled and his net worth quadrupled, Michelson started to focus on philanthropy. He practiced ad hoc giving, responding to stories in newspapers that moved him. He gave money to a girl from a gang-ridden neighborhood who was shot in the face while studying social work.
Michelson’s big giving is more structured. He’s funded medical research through his own $100 million foundation, along with the Hereditary Disease Foundation in New York. That group had isolated the gene for Huntington’s disease in 1983, which paved the way for the human genome project. Michelson started focusing on an area of genetic research called RNA interference. Different species (humans versus apes) have similar genomes but obviously quite different appearances and behavior. The theory is that big differences come from the way in which certain RNA molecules copy DNA sequences into proteins. Michelson is convinced that someday the knowledge gained from the research will allow doctors to flip genetic switches to cure human diseases. He says half of his money will go to human research.
Michelson has a hunch that RNA interference may also be key to creating an injectable method of sterilizing cats and dogs. In most cities the cat and dog population stabilizes if 70% are spayed and neutered. A cheap sterilant could quickly close the gap.
An interim solution involves setting up high-volume spay-and-neuter clinics that can do dozens of operations a day for a fraction of what a full-service vet charges. “Back-yard breeders always say the litter was ‘unexpected,’” he says. “That’s like sleeping with your girlfriend when she’s off birth control. She gets pregnant and you call it unexpected.”
His foundation has hired seven people, including a director, Aimee Gilbreath, a Stanford M.B.A. who worked at Boston Consulting Group. They’ve learned that Michelson’s money opens doors quickly but is also a magnet for wackos. A suicidal cat hoarder who had been raided by animal control officers called recently to beg for money. Michelson appears to have found the one cause that animates him as much as his business life did. “There’s no limit to the number of good causes,” he says. “I have to pick the one that makes me feel the best.”