Benefactor Is Up-by-Bootstraps Workaholic
With his gift of $100 million to USC–and the promise of another $100 million for UCLA–Los Angeles businessman Alfred E. Mann has secured a spot among the likes of Ted Turner and Bill Gates for entrepreneurial generosity.
The difference, of course, is that the media mogul and the high-tech wizard are household names, while Mann remains a virtual unknown in his own backyard.
Mann, the son of an immigrant grocer, has founded more than half a dozen local companies, including one of the largest cardiac pacemaker manufacturers in the world. In the process, he has helped make the biomedical industry an economic force in Southern California.
The incurable workaholic may never hold court with Barbara Walters or lead the tomahawk chop at the World Series, but friends and colleagues say that’s just fine with the 72-year-old physicist, whose reputation may someday extend well beyond the new research facilities he’s funding at the two Los Angeles universities.
“He’s literally working on making the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk,” said Jeff Greiner, president of Advanced Bionics Corp., a Sylmar firm founded by Mann to produce medical devices in the cutting-edge field of neuro-stimulation. “That’s a pretty fantastic legacy if it comes to pass.”
Just who is Alfred E. Mann, where did he get $200 million, and why is he giving it away?
The short answer is that Mann made a small fortune in the aerospace business, then transferred some of that know-how to the biomedical field 20 years before anyone had heard of “defense conversion.” He built his Sylmar-based Pacesetter Inc. into one of the leading manufacturers of cardiac pacemakers before selling it to the German conglomerate Siemens for about $150 million in 1985. (Siemens later sold the unit to St. Paul, Minn.-based St. Jude Medical Inc.)
From there, Mann launched other biomed firms, including MiniMed Inc., a Sylmar-based maker of insulin pumps and other devices to help treat diabetes. His current stake in that fast-growing firm is worth about $188 million.
Although Mann has shared some of his fortune with his children, he likewise subscribes to Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy that a fat inheritance is a curse on the next generation. Thus, the divorced father of six has decided to give away the bulk of his estate. What better cause than biomedical research, helping American scientists translate their best ideas into useful products to ease human suffering?
“When my success exceeded my expectations, I began to think of a way to return to society what it has given to me,” Mann said.
The fact that Mann’s own companies could someday license innovations perfected in the research institutes he’s bankrolling at USC and UCLA reveals the hard-boiled pragmatism underpinning his philanthropy. For example, Advanced Bionics’ principal product is a cochlear implant to assist the profoundly deaf, a technology that came out of the labs of the Alfred E. Mann Foundation, a nonprofit research organization set up by Mann in 1986.
Academics and bioscience experts say the endowment, agreed to Wednesday, underscores the symbiotic relationship developing between industry and the ivory tower. They defend the arrangement as a way to foster more entrepreneurial activity in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles badly trails Orange and San Diego counties in fostering biomedical and biotech start-ups, due in part to the dearth of top-flight research institutes.
“Al Mann is the archetype for entrepreneurs in the new L.A. economy,” said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council. “Here’s a guy who started in aerospace and transferred that knowledge to the medical arena, where he has continued to spin off innovative new firms. Part of him reflects the face of the old economy and part of him reflects the new.”
Indeed, Mann’s ascension from plucky physicist to heavyweight philanthropist mirrors the quiet rise of the Southland’s bioscience industry.
Entertainment and software companies may grab the headlines, but makers of drugs, medical devices and groundbreaking therapies also have proliferated in Southern California, grabbing the lion’s share of venture capital invested in the region this decade. About 2,500 medical device makers now call Southern California home.
Mann is a former aerospace entrepreneur whose companies developed solar cells, semiconductors and other technologies for America’s military and space programs. He got his start in the industry in 1969 when Johns Hopkins University asked for his help on a pacemaker project. At the time, the cardiac devices lasted only 18 to 21 months. Mann was intrigued, and what started as a side project grew into a full-time obsession. There would be no turning back to missiles and spacecraft.
“I got fed up with the politics and the waste of aerospace,” Mann said. “I wanted a challenge and something that would benefit mankind. The pacemaker project was uplifting . . . and it was fun.”
Easy to say for a guy who pocketed $75 million on the Pacesetter deal. But observers say Mann has insisted on sharing the wealth with employees, several of whom became stock-option millionaires when MiniMed went public in 1995.
That company will break ground this spring on larger quarters at a biotech office park being developed at Cal State Northridge.
“We’re bursting at the seams in Sylmar,” said Mann, who plans to strengthen his ties with yet a third local university by offering Northridge students internships, work-study programs and jobs when they graduate.
Industry watchers say Mann’s performance is particularly impressive given the long odds of success in the bioscience industry, where it can take years and millions of dollars for a product to reach the marketplace–if ever.
“Al has such an impeccable track record that people . . . know he’s not some character trying to sell them a bill of goods,” said William Grant, chairman of Galen Associates, a New York venture capital firm that financed MiniMed before its initial public offering. “With Al, there is never a question about the technology. You can’t say that about many people that come through Wall Street.”
Mann was born in Portland, Ore., in 1925, the middle child of working-class immigrant parents. His English father ran a grocery store, and Mann recalls tight money and hard times during the Depression years. But his Polish-born mother was a music lover who insisted that the three children receive musical training.
Although Mann today is a member of the Maestro Foundation and the owner of a rare Bosendorfer piano, music was not his calling, according to his older brother, Robert Mann, the famed violinist and founder of the Juilliard Quartet.
“Albert tried very valiantly,” recalls his brother. (Their sister Rosalind Koff is a concert pianist.) “He tried the piano and the oboe. Finally he said, ‘To hell with it!’ “
Mann instead proved to be a brilliant student with a flair for entrepreneurship. The youngster peddled lemonade and magazines, and melted down flatware for a high school jewelry business. He hustled a few bucks as a photographer before heading off to World War II. Upon his return, he helped his father turn a hardscrabble California lemon grove into a well-tended citrus farm before moving on to study physics at UCLA.
Scraping together $21,000 from family members, Mann launched his first “real” business–Spectrolab–in 1956 to develop a missile technology for the U.S. military. He toiled literally around the clock to complete his first Army contract, a work ethic that has changed little after 40 years. The septuagenarian still routinely works 80-plus hours a week, sleeps only three to four hours a night and has taken just one week of vacation that he can recall in the last 10 years.
“Once Al had a fever of 104 degrees, so I made a house call at 3 in the morning,” said longtime friend and physician Hal Cohen. “He was up working on some sort of business plan. I told him he was crazy. But it’s not work to him. He really loves what he’s doing because he’s helping people. I can tell you he’s not working this hard for the money.”
Indeed, those who know him say Mann is unimpressed by the trappings of wealth and that he thrives on using his brains and good fortune to keep chipping away the mysteries of disease.
He has a large estate on Mulholland Drive, but friends say the house is more of a reflection of Mann’s passion for engineering than his bank account. The holder of 14 scientific and technical patents designed the hydraulics for the gates, and he typically shows visitors the state-of-the-art mechanical systems before he gets around to the Asian art collection.
“Al didn’t build that house as a tribute to himself,” Grant said. “Rather, it’s a testimony to his intellectual curiosity.”
Grant reckons that same restless intellect may one day yield the Holy Grail of diabetes treatment: the artificial pancreas.
“One by one, he keeps jumping the hurdles,” Grant said. “When it finally comes, I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t Al Mann.”
Colleagues say Mann is a good listener, a tough negotiator and usually the smartest fellow in a roomful of lawyers, scientists and financiers–without the accompanying ego. His businesses are the center of his world, yet Mann doesn’t dwell on stock price or net income, according to friend and business associate Aaron Mendelsohn.
“Instead, he’ll show you the letter he got from the diabetic woman who can now have children because she is wearing one of his insulin pumps,” he said. “And then his eyes will well up.”
Added Mendelsohn: “His goal isn’t to make a big name for himself. His legacy is going to speak for itself.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Alfred E. Mann
* Born: Portland, 1925
* Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics, UCLA
* Quote: “When my success succeeded my expectations, I began to think of a way to return to society what it has given to me.”
* Personal: Divorced, six grown children; lives in Los Angeles.
* Companies: Founded Spectrolab, Heliotek, Pacesetter, MiniMed, Advanced Bionics and Medical Research Group.
* Awards: Ernst & Young 1996 Entrepreneur of the Year, Master Category; 1997 Citation Award, UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science