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Monday, May 16, 2022

Making the World a Better Place

Do you ever get that feeling that many of today’s most lauded entrepreneurs are … well, overrated? I think you know the kind I’m talking about: 20-somethings, perhaps with a computer engineering background but often not. Maybe they’ve come up with the next great thing in social media, like a disappearing picture on an iPhone? I won’t mention any names, but somehow the market has decided their genius is worth several billion dollars. I won’t deny there’s some envy here, given the comments come from a 50-something editor. But my point here is not so much to deflate the hype about today’s young social media wizards as to remind everyone about what really constitutes true genius and entrepreneurship. I can think of few better who exemplify those traits than Alfred Mann, the nearly 90-something part-time resident of the San Fernando Valley. Mann is in the news because a panel of outside experts last week recommended that the FDA approve for sale his Valencia company’s Afrezza diabetes treatment, a rapidly absorbed form of insulin administered through an inhaler. (See story page one.) While the FDA is not required to follow the panel’s recommendation, it usually does, so the news sent the stock of his company, MannKind Corp., through the roof. Assuming the decision, which should be made by April 15, is favorable, some experts say Afrezza could generate $1 billion to $4 billion in annual sales. That would be a huge payoff not only for outside investors but primarily for Mann, who owns 40 percent of outstanding stock, worth about $1 billion at the close of trading April 2. But if anyone ever deserved such a payoff, it’s Mann, who has been working on the project for more than a decade and has invested about $900 million of his own money. That’s no typo: close to $1 billion. I had the fortune to sit down with Mann 11 years ago, when I was a writer at our sister paper, the Los Angeles Business Journal, which chose him to be its Business Person of the Year in 2003. The assignment was to write a profile outlining his achievements, without sugarcoating them. If you know anything about Mann’s history, you know that’s a lengthy task. Mann has started more than a dozen companies going back to the late 1950s with Spectrolab and Heliotek, which powered early satellites with the first generation of solar cells. He went on to found cardiac pacemaker Pacesetter Systems, insulin pump maker MiniMed and cochlear implant maker Advanced Bionics, among others. And he’s still at it today with Second Sight, which is developing an artificial retina to give sight to the blind. Local companies, by the way. Mann, I hear, spends much of his time these days in the Las Vegas area, but when I interviewed him in 2003, it was at a palatial home he still owns off Mulholland Drive with a sweeping view of the Valley. The talented Mann designed it himself, including a koi pond that wended its way from the backyard into the house, separated by a glass wall that raised or lowered itself depending on the weather outside. I sat with Mann for three straight breakfasts as he recounted his business and personal history in the kind of detail that most people can only recall about today’s or yesterday’s events. You get the picture. A true genius. I knew I was sitting with the smartest man I had ever met, and I understood how he was able to achieve what he had. But I’ll never forget something he told me. Mann got a bachelors and masters in physics from UCLA, which became great training for the science and engineering-based businesses he went on to found. But he originally thought he would become a theoretical physicist. After some study, however, he said he realized he just couldn’t do it; it was over his head. Can you imagine? I recognized during my interview that Mann’s intellect was completely above mine, and I accepted that. But I was boggled by the idea that Mann perhaps felt that way about others. He didn’t let it bother him, though. Mann is not only prodigiously talented but prodigiously industrious and for decades put in long, long hours at work. It’s something he acknowledged that damaged his family life and led to divorce, but in the end, his accomplishments have truly bettered human existence. So every time I hear about a new Internet genius, some newfangled way we can text our friends, whatever, I think back to my breakfasts with Mann, and that house and those koi fish, swimming from the backyard to his living room. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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