Understanding IP Matters: Gary Michelson on the Courage of Inventors

Gary Michelson isn’t one to back down from a formidable challenge. The prolific inventor’s willingness to tackle seemingly intractable problems in the field of spinal surgery led him to become a successful entrepreneur and eventually, a billionaire. Michelson is frank about his desire to give back to what he describes as the “most robust intellectual property system in the world” — and that starts by educating young people, who are best equipped to change the world.

Today, as the founder of Michelson Philanthropies, he directs a wide range of philanthropic efforts, including increasing access to intellectual property education for students. The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property has differentiated itself by creating a robust portfolio of free, helpful resources that situate intellectual property at the intersection of business and law, including courses and a textbook.

In the latest episode of the “Understanding IP Matters” podcast by the Center for Intellectual Property Understanding, he points out to host Bruce Berman that all of the most successful companies in the world today were started by people who were college-aged.

“Young people have a great advantage over everyone else. When you’re young, you have, let’s say, daring. You don’t know that you cannot do it, so you do it.”

Filling a Void

The Michelson Institute for IP is filling a clear void. A 2021 report by the Center for Intellectual Property Understanding found that none of the top business schools in the United States require their graduate students to learn about intellectual property to obtain their degree. This is especially bizarre in light of the fact that intangible assets – like R&D, intellectual property, software, and data — account for 90% of the value of companies in the S&P 500 today.

“Every time I’ve ever heard a president of a university or the chancellor explain what the purpose of the university was, the answer is always the same: It’s to prepare students for the future. Well, how can we be preparing students for the future if we’re not teaching them basic intellectual property? That is the future.”

To be clear, IP literacy shouldn’t be reserved for business school students and future lawyers. Michelson believes all students deserve to learn about how they can utilize the tools of intellectual property to solve persistent problems and be compensated for their creativity. When is the best time to start? As soon as possible. In his experience working with the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation, first graders are perfectly capable of understanding basic concepts about IP, he says.

An obvious tension exists between what’s required to succeed in academic environments versus as an inventor-entrepreneur. In fact, they’re pretty much at odds with one another. To succeed in school is to travel a well-trodden path, whereas inventors must overcome uncertainty, doubt, and active dissuasion to break new ground. That’s why people who want to become successful inventors must be courageous, Michelson says.

Outside the Lines

“Why do people need courage to become a successful inventor? Well, first of all, you went through a school system that said, ‘Color inside the lines.’ And goddammit, you can’t invent anything in there!” Michelson exclaims. “You need the color outside the lines; you need to think outside the box. If you were just going to do what everyone else is already doing, then you wouldn’t be inventing.”

Michelson is a fantastic advocate for intellectual property because his mission has always been in service to others.

“I never invented to make money. That was never my goal. I was trying to do what was best for my patients,” he explains. “Now, 95% [of lumbar spinal surgery patients] actually get better — and that’s all due to inventions.” (His and others.)

Listen to the latest episode of Understanding IP Matters, “Preparing students to turn their knowledge into currency,” to hear Michelson describe the inventions that he’s most proud of, the experience that propelled him to invent new surgical instruments and processes that transformed lumbar spinal surgery, the roundabout way he began selling those tools, how the U.S. patent system promotes innovative design-arounds, the unfairness inadvertently produced by the 2011 America Invents Act, the five essential ingredients to becoming a successful serial inventor, and why intellectual property is more important than ever for creators today.

About Dr. Gary Michelson

Gary Michelson is a man of unique talents. As the sole named inventor on 992 issued U.S. and foreign patents — all of which relate to the treatment of spinal disorders — he’s one of the most prolific medical inventors in history. Before he developed new techniques and tools, outcomes for patients requiring lower back surgery were abysmal. His refusal to accept the status quo no less than revolutionized the field, raising the success rate for lumbar spinal surgery from 55-60 percent to over 95.

After a legal battle with Medtronic over the origins of his patents, Dr. Michelson sold much of his portfolio to the company for $1.35 billion, placing him on the Forbes 400 List. Causes supported by his philanthropic efforts today include cutting-edge medical research, animal welfare, equitable access to education, and intellectual property education for all.  

In 2017, he established the Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property. MIIP is responsible for creating “The Intangible Advantage,” the first intellectual property textbook for students. Recently, it debuted a program at historically Black colleges and universities to bring IP education to a new generation of entrepreneurs.

As the host of the new podcast “Understanding IP Matters: From Creator to Entrepreneur,” Bruce Berman interviews successful entrepreneurs about how they’ve used intellectual property to bring their ideas for innovative products and services to life.  



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