Alfred Mann, Founder of Advanced Bionics, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Alfred Mann Foundation, Founder of the Alfred Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California, Chairman Emeritus of Pacesetter System, Inc., Founder and past-President of Spectrolab, Founder of Second Sight, Founder of AlleCure HH/Beck: Good Morning Mr. Mann. It is very nice to speak with you again. I am honored that youre taking time out of your amazingly busy schedule to speak with us! Mann: Hi Dr. Beck, happy to be with you. HH/Beck: Mr. Mann, for the readers who may not be familiar with you, can you please tell me a little about your education and your professional background? Mann: My education was in physics. I earned my bachelors and my masters degrees from UCLA, but I never completed my doctorate. My PhD research was on beta-ray spectroscopy, but before I finished my thesis I accepted an outstanding employment offer. I went to work at that point because I had a wife and a son to support, and because it really was a great position. I was so busy after that, that I never went back to school. I had thought I could do a theoretical project, and my mathematics professor suggested to me that I ought to take on the task of proving that Einsteins Unified Field Theory was wrong! HH/Beck: Seems like a rather difficult thing to do! Mann: Yes, well, he gave me a little booklet by Einstein on the topic, and I realized that I was way out of my element. So what did you do in your new position? Mann: At Technicolor I became a pioneer in electro-optical physics, especially in multiplayer interference coatings. We were developing cameras, processing equipment and related technologies for film applications, generally using those interference coatings. HH/Beck: That mustve been a very exciting time? Mann: Yes it really was, new things were being developed and introduced all the time and in our field we were on the cutting edge. HH/Beck: What about competition for Technicolor? Were they any competing labs out there at that time? Mann: Technicolor had enjoyed a virtual monopoly. But in the mid-1950s, Eastman-Kodak brought out their Eastman color process, which was similar to KodaColor, and that opened things up a little. That was the first time Technicolor was really challenged, and the management became concerned and sought to diversify. They looked at our group and started to investigate opportunities with the military. They explored a project with the Air Force. But, the management was looking for a business that would achieve a quick ten million dollars in annual revenue, and that wasnt very easy to find in 1955! After working with the Air Force for a while, the pot of gold never appeared, so we turned off work for the Air Force. Then the Army came to me. They needed some help for an anti-tank missile fire control system. I told them there was nothing I could do for them. Then they asked if I could personally consult on the project because they needed advice on how to make a special multilayer interference filter for the control system. Well, I hadnt made anything like what they wanted before, but I thought I knew how to do it, so I gave them some suggestions. To make a long story short, the Army went to their vendor and told them my idea, but the vendor said they couldnt do it. The Army then came back to me and offered to set me up in business to build what they needed. They told me that if I said no there would be thousands of people let go from their jobs, and our country wouldnt have an anti-tank missile system -- and so I said, OK, why not? So I left Technicolor. I thought Id do what the Army needed and then Id go back and finish my doctorate. The Army was happy with that and they sent a contracting officer over to me. He said he didnt need a proposal or a plan, he just needed a quotation for the files. He told me how to put a quotation together, but obviously the final price was up to me. The quote had to include the personnel costs, other costs including supplies and all other related expense, and they suggested that I could earn a ten percent profit. I also had to agree to a schedule for delivery of the first article. Even though I had to acquire equipment, design and fabricate control systems to measure thin film thicknesses to fractions of a millionth of an inch --- inside a vacuum chamber --- I told them I could complete the project in four months for eleven thousand, two hundred dollars. Of course that was in 1956, and dollars were more precious then. I shouldve known something was wrong when I received a contract within an hour! One thing led to another and my company became very substantial. But the fun thing was that about 15 years later, I again became involved with that contracting officer. Now he was working as a vice president for a pharmaceutical company. I had the opportunity to have dinner with him. He began to laugh as he recalled the early Army work. He told me that the Army had given him direct orders to sign me up at whatever the cost, and to ask for more if he needed it. He had pre-approval in his pocket for five hundred thousand dollars, and I came in with the 11 thousand dollar quotation! HH/Beck: But I think you mustve felt like the eleven thousand dollar price tag was a fair price back then and you were happy to get it? Mann: Yes, and I actually delivered the device two weeks early and made a small profit. Half a million dollars wouldve been more than I couldve imagined at that time. HH/Beck: At about that time, the US space program was getting going, and I can imagine that mustve been very interesting for you too? Mann: Yes, it really was. In 1958 one of the senior people working on the antitank missile program left and went to work for Space Technology Laboratories (STL), which at that time had responsibility for the Air Force missile program. One day he came into my office and said Al, we want to build a spacecraft and fly it, powering it with solar cells. Solar cells had just been invented by Bell Laboratories. My friend pointed out that solar cells lose efficiency when they get hot, and there was no obvious way to cool them. I thought about it and decided that maybe we could apply a coating to the solar cells that would make them run cooler and be more efficient in space. They gave me a purchase order to make some samples. The samples worked well and they gave us a contract for the first spacecraft. They liked our workmanship and our competence. Later they wanted us to assemble the solar panels. We really didnt want to do that, but the company that was assembling them was not doing well, so we thought about it long and hard. As it turns out, we figured out what it would cost to assemble those arrays, and our estimate was just one-quarter of what was being paid. And STL wasnt happy with the Vendor! But we figured the vendor must have known something we didnt know and so we doubled our price! We were still half the price of their current vendor. We got the contract and as it turns out we were very profitable because our first estimate was really correct! HH/Beck: And from all of that you somehow got involved with Advanced Bionics and cochlear implants? Mann: Well, not quite at that point. We actually started a semi-conductor company called Heliotek, and both Spectrolab and Heliotek were acquired by Textron and eventually have become part of Boeing. I personally worked on over 400 space systems and 100 spacecraft. One of my customers was the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. They were trying to use the advanced engineering of the Laboratory to design a cardiac pacemaker that would last more than 18 to 21 months. Hopkins talked me into taking on that project. So we did, but in a separate company. That program led to a long-lived pacemaker and, as of a few years ago, there were still almost a thousand people still walking around with those original pacemakers after some twenty years! That was my introduction to the medical business. Then I went on to insulin pumps for diabetes. That was a real challenge, too. We also developed an intravenous pump for hospital use, and then years later the otolaryngology team at the University of California in San Francisco approached me to develop a cochlear implant. HH/Beck: So that brings us to about 1987 or so? Mann: Yes, thats about right. What happened is that a young engineer that had worked on a cochlear implant program at UCSF came to work for the Alfred Mann Foundation. He was amazed at our technology and realized that we had far more technical ability than the group UCSF was working with. He wanted us to get involved with cochlear implants, and told us how important it was. I recall saying that we already had too much on our plate and we just couldnt possibly get involved. Then he came back in two or three months with Dr. Schindler, the Chief of otolaryngology at UCSF. He showed me a videotape of a woman who was absolutely deaf. The state of the art then was a very crude device, but even with that system the woman could talk on the phone. I had tears streaming down my face and pretty soon I said, Oh what the heck, Ill do it. I really never thought of making a company out of it, I was just trying to help. The objective was to develop a system and then find some company to commercialize the system. We didnt use what had been started at UCSF and started from the very beginning. In 1991, we implanted our Clarion I in 6 people. They were all doing very well. We were offered a deal by a company in the business but the offer was ridiculous. We had invested some ten million dollars in the cochlear implant development and they wanted it for nothing. So instead we formed Advanced Bionics to commercialize the cochlear implant. HH/Beck: How are your systems different today? Mann: The Clarion II is a very advanced system that is giving many people really good quality sound, and as new processing software becomes available they will be able to do much more. Most of these people hear well --- many hear better than I do. With new strategies some of these people hear music with clear tonality. HH/Beck: It seems like many of the projects youve described just happen to come along at the right time? Mann: Perhaps. Some we plan, but others just happen. HH/Beck: What about Second Sight? Mann: Second Sight is an enterprise trying to develop a visual prosthesis. A few years ago I wondered that if we could help deaf people hear, could we also help blind people see? We started working on Second Sight. What we actually do there is to stimulate the bipolar cells of the retina with information derived from a tiny camera. The camera provides visual information that is used to stimulate the retina by an electrode array placed in the eye. The optic nerve conducts the signal to the brain which interprets it as vision. HH/Beck: How many people have been implanted to date? Mann: We implanted one person last spring, just to see if were on the right track. We have just recently implanted a second patient. Theres quite a lot to be done until we produce a device that creates truly reasonable sight. We should begin to implant a potentially production system in about 18 months, but I think were about three years away from FDA trials of the system we want to commercialize. HH/Beck: What can you tell me about the system and the results from the one person? Mann: The system that we have now is a low resolution system. We simply needed to see if we were on the right track --- to see if our concept was even possible. A lot of development is still needed to make a system with adequate resolution. Nonetheless, the fellow with the current test system says he is able to see some things. For example, if hes in a room, he was able to find a door. HH/Beck: Is the system of the same basic components as in the cochlear implant? I mean is there something equivalent to the microphone, the implanted electrode, and then a box that the patient can adjust to increase, decrease or alter the signal? Mann: Yes, in that respect they are similar. The visual system has a tiny camera mounted on an eyeglass frame, an implanted electrode array, and a processor of sorts. The electrode array in the visual system needs about one thousand contact points to make a truly decent picture. Thus the electrode is more complex than that used in the cochlear implant. HH/Beck: What else are you doing in neurostimulation? Mann: We are involved in several different neural stimulation systems. For example, were also working on a device for spinal cord stimulation, and one for brain stimulation, too. We also have the BION, a neurostimulator so tiny it is implanted through a needed --- without surgery. The BION has a host of applications. Well probably be starting clinical trials with the BION soon. HH/Beck: Unfortunately, I know we really need to let you go. I really have enjoyed speaking with you and learning a little about your many and varied interests. Thanks you very much for giving us a little of your time today, and I hope we can get together again next year? Mann: Yes, lets do that. Thank you for your time too Dr. Beck. Click here to visit the Advanced Bionics website. For more information on Second Sight, CLICK HERE. For more information on the Alfred Mann Foundation, CLICK HERE.