Dr. Gary Michelson was a problem solver from his childhood, always looking for ways to improve the lives of those around him. Born and raised in Philadelphia by his mother and grandmother, Michelson put his innovative mind to work. “As a child, I found it very easy to take things apart and put them back together. Electricity scared a lot of people, but as a kid I was always fixing electrical things around the house.”
He was a natural inventor, always seeking to understand how things worked and how they could be made to perform better.
His draw to the medical field was inspired by his grandmother who for decades suffered from syringomyelia, a spinal disease that causes immense back pain, stiffness, and decreased sensation. Michelson witnessed the pain of her condition. He tells the story of one incident caused by her insensitivity to temperature: “She was at the stove, and I turned around, and she was just leaning her hand on a burner, and I could see flames coming up through her fingers. I screamed, and then she doused out her hand in the sink. And she said, ‘That’s nothing; I do that all the time’.”
She had seen numerous top syringomyelia specialists, but they could not provide any answers for her. She told Michelson, “One day, you’ll become a doctor, and you’ll fix me.” And he dedicated his life to the cause.
Michelson moved out at 17 and began his medical studies at Temple University and Hahnemann Medical College in his hometown, earning his degree in 1975. He completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the Hahnemann Medical Hospital, and his fellowship in spinal surgery at St. Luke’s Medical Center. In 1980, he moved to Los Angeles where he established his practice as a spinal surgeon.
However, Michelson was not just a spinal surgeon. As an ‘outside the box’ thinker, he sought to cure the incurable and improve the industry norms.
“The world has a status quo,” he explains. “Things are functioning, and when you try to shake that up, there are inertial forces that resist it.” He was dissatisfied with the success rates of spinal surgery and the partial fixes that left the patients still in pain. So he began re-inventing spinal surgery.
Dr. Gary Michelson now holds over 950 patents and has developed hundreds of devices, implants, and procedures that have revolutionized spinal surgery.
“He has the largest spinal patent portfolio of anyone, by a lot,” said John J. Viscogliosi of Viscogliosi Brothers, an organization focused on neuromusculoskeletal innovation. “These are real fundamental core patents in spinal surgery.” These innovations, known as “Michelson devices” by medical professionals, have allowed surgeons across the globe to perform spinal surgery less invasively and with more precision, increasing the likelihood for success, and decreasing the patient’s recovery time.
Michelson is recognized as a world-renowned medical pioneer and groundbreaker who has transformed his field and improved the lives of countless spinal patients.
In 2011, the same year he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, President Obama invited him to the White House to witness the signing of the American Invents Act of 2011 (AIA), legislation that supposedly modernized the patent system and strengthened America’s global competitiveness.
Unfortunately, there is the very shocking and disturbing injustice of this story: tech giants like Google and Apple, that are inconvenienced by disruptive innovators such as Michelson, lobbied to include in the AIA reforms that weakened the reliability of patents, including the creation of a new way to invalidate previously issued patents, regardless of how long a patent has been in effect, through the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).
The unintended consequences of the AIA and the PTAB continue to de-incentivize inventing and ruin the livelihoods of world changers, revoking the patents of thousands of legitimate inventors — including Dr. Gary Michelson.
In Michelson’s case, the consequences were less devastating for the inventor, as he was lucky enough to find success before the AIA was passed. He sold his patents to Medtronic, an international medical device firm, in 2004 when they had substantial value.
One of Medtronic’s competitors, NuVasive, the “leader in spine technology innovation” according to their website, had been infringing Michelson’s patents for years. They petitioned for review of two of his patents, an anatomic spinal implant and a method for inserting an artificial implant between two adjacent vertebrae. The PTAB Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) – who are not real judges, nor are they experienced patent examiners – agreed with the plaintiff that the inventions were “obvious” and, therefore, invalidated (revoked) them both, basically rendering them worthless.
The United States patent system was originally devised, under our U.S. Constitution (Article 8 Section 8 Clause 8), to reward inventors like Gary Michelson, not punish nor destroy them.
America needs – and must have – disruptive, innovative thinkers who are dissatisfied with the status quo and determined to find better ways of doing and making things. Reliable and enforceable patents are a vitally necessity to keep the American Dream alive and to raise the next generation of world changers like Dr. Gary Michelson.