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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023


CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter Alfred E. Mann has founded seven aerospace and biomedical companies over the past 40 years, including Pacesetter Inc., the nation’s second-largest manufacturer of cardiac pacemakers. The physicist-turned-entrepreneur owns a $225 million stake in MiniMed Inc., a fast-growing insulin pump maker in Sylmar, as well as majority interest in two other companies. He has enjoyed the accolades that come with pledging $100 million each to USC and his alma mater UCLA to further biomedical research, and he has been widely praised for committing to build the San Fernando Valley’s first biomedical business park at Cal State Northridge. So you’d think that with all his accomplishments not to mention personal wealth estimated at $550 million the septuagenarian would sit back and relax. Not Mann. “He loves his work,” said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council. “He’s not doing it at this stage for the money. He’s working on devices that are lifesaving, that will have a big impact in the medical community.” As a result of his accomplishments, Mann, who serves as chairman and chief executive of MiniMed, has been named Businessperson of the Year by the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Those who know him describe Mann as energetic, hard working and dedicated a sharp entrepreneur who skillfully navigates the worlds of science, business and academia. “You can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur. It’s almost like people who are great pianists or painters. He has it in him.” said Frank Wazzan, dean of the school of engineering and applied sciences at UCLA. Mann credits his father and mother, immigrants from England and Poland respectively, with instilling in him basic values that have carried him through life. “They taught me about the importance of character, integrity, hard work, commitment, loyalty,” he said. “I think I’ve grown up with those lessons and put them to use effectively.” Born in Portland, Ore. in 1925, Mann worked in his parents’ grocery store as a delivery boy, but he also showed an entrepreneurial bent early on. He ran his own lemonade stand and sold magazines and newspapers. In high school, he became a player on the local market for silver by melting some old silver flatware and selling the metal to classmates for 50 cents an ounce. Mann developed a love of math and science. He graduated from high school at age 15 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at UCLA. With $21,000 in capital scraped together from family and friends, Mann founded his first company, defense contractor Spectrolab Inc. in Sylmar, in 1956. He admits he made some mistakes early on; with his first military contract, he bid $11,000 on a job he later learned the government was prepared to pay $500,000 for. Still, Mann helped build the company’s reputation for quality and reliability, leading to ever-larger contracts. Ultimately, Spectrolab built the solar cell array on the country’s first space probe and became a leader in powering such craft. Mann sold Spectrolab, and a spin-off company called Heliotek, to Textron Inc. in 1960, but stayed on to run the companies for Textron for another 12 years, bringing in an average pretax return of 56 percent during his last six years with the company. In 1969, Mann was approached by Applied Physics Laboratory, a federal laboratory managed by Johns Hopkins University, to build a better battery for cardiac pacemakers. The leap into biomedicine didn’t make sense for Spectrolab, so Mann founded Pacesetter Inc. Pacesetter and other pacemaker companies hit on lithium iodine batteries as the solution for powering the devices. But it wasn’t until 1978 that Pacesetter developed a revolutionary pacemaker, one that was smaller yet lasted longer than anything else on the market. Revenues at Pacesetter grew from $4.6 million in 1978 to $233 million in 1990. Mann sold the company to the German conglomerate Siemens AG in 1985, but he spun off a fledgling project in which tiny pumps were being used to help diabetics control their insulin intake. That spin-off firm, MiniMed Inc. has since become the market leader in the manufacture and sale of both external and implantable microinfusion pumps, which allow diabetics to control their glucose levels. The public company has grown at a compound rate of 31 percent since 1990, generating $75 million in revenue in 1997. MiniMed is about to release a disposable sensor that will allow diabetics to more easily monitor their glucose levels, an innovation that could make obsolete 60 percent of the glucose meters in a potential $3 billion market, he said. At the same time, another Mann company, Medical Research Group, is developing an implantable sensor that would automatically check glucose levels and recommend insulin doses to patients. Within a couple of years, Mann believes he will have a self-contained unit that will continually monitor a patient’s glucose and provide the right amount of insulin just like a pancreas. “It could be perhaps the most significant single device product in all of medicine,” Mann said. “The cost of treating diabetes is estimated at as high as $136 billion a year. With this product, a person would see the doctor every three or four months, and between times hardly know he had the disease.” Mann has equally high hopes for an artificial cochlear implant that yet another of his companies, Advanced Bionics, is bringing to market. The device, dubbed the Clarion, converts sound into electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve in the inner ear. It’s the only device of its kind in the U.S. to win approval by the Food and Drug Administration. With the success of MiniMed, Mann began running out of space at his Sylmar plant on San Fernando Road, and a search for a bigger property ended at Cal State Northridge. Mann is finalizing a deal with the university to build a multimillion-dollar biotech complex on 28 acres in the university’s North Campus area. Mann hopes to break ground in the next several weeks and relocate MiniMed as early as next spring. Under the agreement with MiniMed, students and faculty would be able to participate in joint research projects and internships and use the MiniMed facilities, including a state-of-the-art telecommunication center. “It provides great academic ties for us,” said Art Elbert, CSUN’s vice president of administration and finance. The deal would bring CSUN $32 million over the 40-year term of the lease, but more importantly it would open the door to millions more in federal and state grants having to do with biomedical research, he said. “(Mann) is an incredibly ingenious guy, always forward thinking,” said Elbert. “He has a vision of the future not only as it relates to profit-making enterprise but as it relates to the health and welfare of the country.” With his hefty pledges to USC and UCLA, Mann plans to create non-profit research institutes at both campuses to develop biomedical devices, possibly devices that would help bypass an injured spinal cord. “The idea is to try to take technology from academia and turn it into a realistic product that has the potential for commercial success,” Mann said. The hefty gifts, which place Mann among the top 10 donors to higher education in the nation, are in keeping with his plan to give away the bulk of his estate to keep his six children striving for success. “I think to make children independently wealthy destroys their motivation and commitment, and I believe there’s nothing more valuable than the dedication of a person’s energies to a goal,” he said. So what keeps Mann striving? “I get hundreds of letters from our diabetes patients thanking me and thanking the company for creating a life for them, and in some cases saving their lives. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you take a vacation?’ My life is a vacation.”

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