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How I Made It: Alfred Mann, entrepreneur and philanthropist

The billionaire has no formal business training but has demonstrated a knack for capitalizing on investment opportunities. His secret: Identify an unmet need and come up with a technology to fill it.

October 09, 2011|By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times
  • "The satisfaction of changing someones life  indeed, even giving a person back a useful life  thats what really drives me, Alfred Mann says.
"The satisfaction of changing someones life indeed, even giving… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Alfred E. Mann, 85, is an aerospace and biomedical entrepreneur who founded 17 companies over six decades and became a billionaire philanthropist.

Niche man: Although he had no formal business training, Mann has demonstrated a knack for capitalizing on investment opportunities. His secret: Identify an unmet need and come up with a technology to fill it.

The result has been a string of companies with names like Spectrolab, Heliotek, MiniMed and Advanced Bionics. Mann has developed pacemakers, cochlear implants, insulin pumps and other devices.

Big payoff: Launching businesses and selling them has made Mann a fortune. Forbes put his net worth at $1 billion earlier this year. But the entrepreneur known to his friends as Al says wealth has never been a priority. "I've got more money than I can spend," he said. "For me, the satisfaction of changing someone's life — indeed, even giving a person back a useful life — that's what really drives me."

High school passion: Mann never dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur during his childhood in Portland, Ore. He was the middle of three children born to immigrant parents — his English father was a grocer and his Polish mother was a singer and pianist. Mann played cello, oboe and piano. (His favorite piano piece was the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C sharp minor.)

Science bound: His true calling emerged during his senior year of high school, when he took chemistry and physics. "That changed my life," he said. (Even though he was the class co-valedictorian, he asked permission to stay an additional semester to take more physics. The school said no.)

Go Bruins: Mann went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in physics at UCLA, eventually setting down roots in Los Angeles. In 1956 he founded his first company, Spectrolab, which developed solar-power electric systems for spacecraft.

Spaceships to stethoscopes: Mann's career took a turn in the late 1960s when researchers from Johns Hopkins University ask for help applying space technology to create a long-lasting pacemaker. Mann's first biomedical company, Pacesetter Systems, was born. "I got intrigued by medicine," he said.

Family Mann: As his business life grew, so did his family. The budding entrepreneur would marry four times over the ensuing decades, raising seven children who have given him nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Mr. Philanthropy: Mann says he has given away about $500 million primarily to support research causes. Among his beneficiaries is the Alfred Mann Foundation, a nonprofit organization based on the sprawling grounds of the Mann Biomedical Park in Santa Clarita . It develops medical devices — such as the cochlear implant and an artificial pancreas — with the aim of bringing inventions to the marketplace.

Mann also has endowed biomedical research institutes at Purdue University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and USC, bypassing alma mater UCLA to give its rival $163 million. "My objective is to solve medical problems," he said.

Tough times: Mann has struggled to realize one of his dreams — the creation of a powder insulin inhaler for diabetics. The federal Food and Drug Administration declined to approve the treatment, Afrezza, twice last year and has asked for additional tests.

Mann said he has invested $925 million in MannKind Corp., which is developing the inhaler system. The company recently laid off 181 employees, leaving a workforce of about 250.

Meanwhile, Eclipse Aviation Corp. — an aircraft company in which he invested more than $100 million — went into bankruptcy.

Torrid pace: At this stage of life, Mann could be relaxing, playing rummy with Claude, his wife of eight years, at home in Las Vegas or in their other home on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Instead he's working 70 to 80 hours a week, spending half of each month crossing the country in one of his three private planes.

Mann allows himself two vacations a year — one week in Maui around Christmas and another week in Mexico for his wedding anniversary in February.

He plans to leave his money to healthcare research. But that's in the future. Right now, he shows few signs of slowing down. "I'm going faster than ever," he said. "It's insane. Absolutely insane."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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