Gary Michelson: How One “Unreasonable” Man Used Patents to Create Change
Posted on June 29, 2016
Ask Gary Michelson why he became a doctor, and he will tell you matter-of-factly, “Because my grandmother told me I would be.” But ask what led him to become an inventor, and his answer becomes more nuanced. Innovative thinking always came naturally to him, says Dr. Michelson. “As a child, I found it very easy to take things apart and put them back together. Electricity scared a lot of people, but as a kid I was always fixing electrical things around the house.” From television sets to record players, Dr. Michelson seemed driven to understand why something wasn’t working and then fix it—a trait that he says is less valued than one might think. “That old saying about how if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door is, 99 percent of the time, absolutely nonsense,” says the doctor, inventor, and philanthropist. “The world has a status quo. Things are functioning, and when you try to shake that up, there are inertial forces that resist it.”
Although Dr. Michelson’s proclivity for solving problems was encouraged as a child, once he began his career as a spinal surgeon, he found such resistance at every turn. From the well-meaning mentor who advised him against working with spinal patients at all, to the famed surgeon who refused to consider a better approach, Dr. Michelson entered a field that had become hopelessly stuck in its ways. “When I look back on it, if not for how bad things were, I’m not sure there would have been that much room to make the significant advancements and contributions that I did,” he says. Armed with the “unreasonable” nature that playwright George Bernard Shaw said was necessary for change, he soon began inventing new and better ways to tackle age-old problems in his field.
Today, Dr. Michelson holds more than 950 patents worldwide, largely for inventions geared to advancements in spinal surgery, has retired from medicine, and is championing causes ranging from animal welfare to the development of life-saving vaccines for the world’s poorest people to reforestation. He also has spearheaded a project via his 20 Million Minds Foundation that will make detailed IP curriculums accessible to the general public, and strongly believes that IP owners need to do more to educate young people in STEM and creative fields.
In this latest addition to Innovator Insights, Dr. Michelson, who is a member of the IPO Education Foundation’s Board of Directors, shares his experience as an inventor in the medical field, his advice for other doctors who want to solve problems in their areas of expertise, and how he is working to help young people better appreciate the role of patents and IP in pursuing innovative or creative endeavors.
How did your career as a spinal surgeon evolve into inventing?
I did a fellowship in spine surgery. At that time, most physicians were not very happy with the results of the more difficult spine surgeries. That was because you could do the procedures precisely as they were described and still have a disproportionately large number of people who either did not get better or were actually made worse. For surgeons in particular, that’s not satisfying—surgeons want to fix something and be done with that patient forever, but in those days spine surgery wasn’t like that. In fact, when I expressed an interest to the people running my training program in going on to become a spine surgeon, one of the doctors took me aside and said, “What are you thinking? Let me give you an analogy; imagine you were a carpenter and you’re building a house and every time you bent a nail, you put it back in the bag instead of throwing it away. In the end, all you would have is bent nails. If you’re going to become a spine surgeon, you better plan to move every three to four years, because all you’ll have is bent nails.” That was his description of what spine surgery was like in the 1970s. His warning didn’t affect me at all, but I think what he said was true at the time. When I look back on it, if not for how bad things were, I’m not sure there would have been that much room to make the significant advancements and contributions that I did. There wouldn’t have been so much room to dramatically improve things.
In the beginning, I was really looking for an answer to a particular challenge that kept presenting itself in spine surgery. When I was young and starting out I went to the people who were supposedly the world’s experts and asked, “What do you do?” What I got back were horror stories about things that people had tried with disastrous results and the caution that covers all of medicine, which is “First, do no harm.” That was the advice I got from everyone I asked.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I think I was the unreasonable man. Whereas all my peers, mentors, and teachers were willing to accept things as they were, I wasn’t. I think that was the difference. That saying, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door,” 99 percent of the time is absolutely nonsense. The world has a status quo; things are functioning and when you try to shake that up there are inertial forces that resist that. The world doesn’t beat a path to your door, it actually resists.
I can remember showing a very famous spine surgeon a new and better way to do something he was doing all the time with poor results and about five minutes into my speech he looked up at me and said, “I’m not interested.” I asked him why and he said, “I’m ‘procedured’ out. I’ve been at this now for years and I’m not going to learn another operation.” Of course, the world passed him by and he had no choice but to eventually learn what he didn’t learn then, but that’s the way things really were.
What was the initial problem you were trying to solve?
We operate on people everyday because they have a disc herniation and the herniation is protruding in such a way that it’s affecting a nerve root. When those discs rupture slowly over time, rather than suddenly, in one event, they drag the skin of the bone, the periosteum, with them as they’re bulging. That causes a bone spur, or an osteophyte, to grow up underneath the herniation. When you go in and take out the piece of the disc that’s herniated, it doesn’t do anything about that osteophyte. The problem is that spine surgeons are working in a deep, dark well. These are very small incisions and they go down into the patient, five or seven inches, so it’s difficult to figure out how you’re going to remove something that’s hard as a rock.
I heard horror stories about the different things that people tried that did not work or even harmed the patient. And everyone else heard those stories too, so they stopped doing those things and just left the bone there. In a sense, you were sentencing that person to a lifetime of persistent pain. That did not seem like a good idea to me, and it was part of the reason for the warning that doctor had given me. Of course those patients aren’t going to get better, because you haven’t fixed anything. So, those things called out for some novel way that would be safe and effective to address this problem, which became my first medical invention and dramatically changed the treatment of this problem that—going back to Shaw’s quote—everyone had seen everyday but just accepted for what it was.
What was the solution exactly, and how did you end up patenting it?
I figured out a very counterintuitive way to address the problem that was 100 percent successful, but it was nothing you would normally think about doing. I designed a particular set of instruments that did not exist in order to perform this procedure with great efficiency. People started to send these cases to me and asked where I got the instruments and they wanted them. I would send those people to my machinist, and one day he called me up and asked if I knew anything about machining. He explained that all the time and effort in machining is to configure the machines with the right jigs—it’s like business cards, where the setup charge is more than the cost of the cards. He said, “You’ve sent me half a dozen people, and every time I make a set of instruments I have to stop what I’m doing and take the machines offline. Why don’t you just make 100?” I said, “What would I do with 100 sets?” and he told me to just sell them all. So, I had him make 100 sets. I didn’t really intend to do it, but at that point I was in the business.
Other problems similar to what I described above came up along the way and I realized I didn’t have to accept things the way they were, so I made other instruments. Suddenly, I was actually in the instrument business. I got a folding card table and went to one of the orthopedic conferences and there were huge numbers of people coming over. There were companies that put up multi-story buildings at these conferences, and here we were at this little table with a crowd five people deep. That led to one of the first licensing deals I ever had, with Johnson & Johnson. In essence, I sold the business to Johnson & Johnson, and they were the ones who made it very clear to me that you can’t be in this business without patents.
Why is that?
If you’re in a business like medicine, you’re usually funding the development of at least five different products at any given time, and it involves years and millions of dollars of R&D time, FDA approval, etc. By the time you’re ready to go to market, four of those things are already no good. So the one that makes it to market not only has to pay for itself but for all of that R&D, engineering, and FDA compliance, for four products that never got to the marketplace. If there were no patents, somebody would, as a matter of free enterprise, wait until that fifth winner emerges and just start making it cheaper, which they could because they have no R&D costs. If you can’t protect what finally makes it to the pipeline, there is no pipeline. That’s why patents are absolutely essential in the medical industry.
The second reason patents are essential is that it often turns out to be someone outside the big company who really comes up with the next new thing. Those little start up companies would never exist if they couldn’t get venture funding, and they couldn’t get one penny of venture funding without a patent.
What if there hadn’t been a patent system in your case?
I don’t think most of these things would have ever changed.
How many patents do you have now?
I have more than 950 patents around the world. All, with a couple of rare exceptions, are related to advancements in spinal surgery.
What would you say to those who are critical of patents and the patent system?
First of all, there’s an old saying that “in any plan where you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can count on Paul’s support.” If you say to somebody, “Would you like to have all your music for free or do you want to have to pay for it?” They’d say, “Give me the free music.” But if that person is an auto mechanic and you ask them to fix everyone’s car for free, they’d say, “What are you, crazy?” It’s the same with respect to free content. Why would anyone invest money to develop new products and bring them to market if someone can go and steal them without repercussion? That is just shoplifting on the grandest scale.
How can IP owners get that message across more effectively?
My perception is that IP owners do a much better job of preaching to the choir and having the choir say, “Amen” than they do reaching out to those who aren’t in the choir. As part of my 20 Million Minds Foundation (see box), I have incurred the cost to produce what will be the first IP book that will be freely downloadable and meant for people who aren’t in the legal profession. We are also completing what we call a “Course in the Box,” which will allow universities and colleges to offer a for-credit course on IP. If you think about companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, they were all started by people in the college demographic, yet no college in the United States offers a course on IP. How can that be? And what about all the people in college who are pursuing creative fields like art or writing who have no knowledge of copyright? That is a great deficit and I believe we should be addressing that. There aren’t even any courses on inventing. I’ve been to very large meetings, ones with several hundred doctors, who have wanted me to talk to them about inventing.
What would be your advice to other doctors who see the potential to invent solutions to problems in their specializations?
If you’re a physician and you’re struggling with a problem, that’s actually a great place to start to come up with an invention. Edwin H. Land said that coming up with the right question is actually the hardest part of invention. But how do you know if the idea is patentable? In today’s world, you should go to Google Patents first. The results will be whatever’s closest to the invention. That’s where to start. If you don’t find a description of what you invented, you could hire a patent attorney, or you could simply write up the best description of what you have and send it to the USPTO as a provisional patent application from a first time inventor. Then, you have at least one year to decide whether to seek patent protection. That allows you to approach companies that are in that business. The super outlier option is you could start your own company. Some manage to be successful, but most have not.
Why do you think you were successful?
Each individual’s experiences are anecdotal. I’m certainly not a case study in what you should do. I had a group of 350 physicians contact me once. They wanted me to give a talk on monetizing medical inventions and I said I couldn’t do it. If you’re going to do public speaking it’s best to actually speak on a topic you know something about. That would have been a very short talk—I’d say, “Be lucky.” I’m no business whiz. But there’s a learning curve. I have 950 patents now, and you learn something new with each one.