$50-Million Gift to Establish Bioscience Center at U. of Southern California

A rendering of the planned USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience (foreground), with the existing Irani Hall behind it. (Image courtesy of USC)

A rendering of the planned USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience (foreground), with the existing Irani Hall behind it. (Image courtesy of USC)

A retired orthopedic spinal surgeon plans to announce on Monday a $50-million gift for an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Southern California that he hopes will generate a wave of inventions in the biosciences.

The donation, by Gary K. Michelson, will establish the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, where researchers in engineering, medicine, and a range of scientific fields will collaborate to create products and bring them to the market.

The 190,000-square-foot center, which officials expect to be completed by late 2016 or early 2017, will be a partnership of the university’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences and its Viterbi School of Engineering. The building will be home to as many as 30 principal investigators, and its laboratories will employ hundreds of researchers and students, the university said.

Dr. Michelson hopes that the university’s scientists will be able to leverage their basic research into lucrative technology-transfer successes that will sustain the center’s work indefinitely.

“I’ve known individuals who spent their entire lives peering down the tubes of microscopes but who never changed the world,” he said in an interview last week. “My work was goal oriented.”

Dr. Michelson spent his career developing spinal devices, surgical instruments, and procedures, and his research has resulted in more than 950 patents or patents pending. In 2005 the medical-device company Medtronic Inc. agreed to pay $1.35-billion to settle a patent lawsuit with Dr. Michelson and acquire rights to his inventions. Forbes estimated his net worth last year at $1.5-billion.

He criticized the poor record of universities in converting research into dollars, citing a report published last year by the Brookings Institution that said that over the past 20 years, on average, 87 percent of technology-transfer offices did not break even.

“Universities generally do a terrible, terrible job of containing and monetizing the research that they do,” Dr. Michelson said.

Whether the USC center will be different or not, he said, will depend in a small part on whether the university chooses to seek his help.

“There’s nothing in it for me, but I personally, in my career, licensed 20 different companies my technology,” he said. “Some were companies that had no technology other than mine.”

Dr. Michelson’s gift resulted from a university advancement officer’s approach of David A. Cohen, president of Karlin Asset Management, whom Dr. Michelson identified as his business manager. Mr. Cohen persuaded Dr. Michelson to meet with university officials about the proposed center this past fall.

Steve A. Kay, dean of the Dornsife College, said conversations with Dr. Michelson had progressed quickly.

“It only took a few meetings for us to realize that we really had a shared vision of how we’d like to see convergent science done,” said Mr. Kay, who plans to pursue his own research, on the genetic basis for circadian rhythms, at the center.

“The $50-million allows us to build the building,” he said. “It’s a naming gift that then triggers a significant investment from the university.”

Dr. Michelson’s gift is part of the university’s $6-billion capital campaign, which began in 2011 and had raised $3-billion as of November 2013.

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