February 1, 2008

Cover Story

An Epic Life

From the vantage point of 2008, the life and career of James LeVoy Sorenson s...Read More

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Article

An Epic Life

The Odyssey of James LeVoy Sorenson 1921-2008

Kimball Thomson

February 1, 2008


From the vantage point of 2008, the life and career of James LeVoy Sorenson seem to belong to a bygone era, when a solitary individual could change the shape and course of an entire industry. It is tempting to identify Sorenson’s exploits with those of larger-than-life Homeric heroes of the mythic past – a modern Achilles, who single-handedly changed the fortunes of an entire war; a contemporary Odysseus who traversed previously undiscovered realms, expanded frontiers and introduced new ways of seeing the world. In a time when product development in the life sciences has become the domain of large corporate enterprises and development costs often reach into the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, it is difficult to imagine the Promethean influence Sorenson exercised in the medical devices industry from the 1950s through the 1980s. The companies he founded created tens of thousands of jobs, and his inventions garnered more than 40 patents. In the last decades of his life, however, the multi-faceted Sorenson – medical devices inventor, entrepreneur, real estate magnate and philanthropist – rose to defy the conventional wisdom about the diminishing contribution a single individual can make when he helped launch and shape an entirely new industry, built around the modern science of genetic genealogy. Medical Device Pioneer Sorenson, who died January 20 at age 86, rose above the poverty of his childhood in the height of the Great Depression and undiagnosed dyslexia – which his first-grade teacher mistook for slow-wittedness – to global prominence as a medical device visionary. His contributions to this industry are the stuff of legend. Miles White, CEO of Abbott, calls Sorenson “an American original” whose innovations “had a monumental impact when he introduced them and have stood the test of time.” Sorenson produced a host of pioneering inventions, including the first: disposable surgical masks; non-invasive venous plastic catheters; computerized systems for real-time monitoring of the human cardiovascular system; and blood recycling and infusion systems. “Jim spent his legendary career developing innovations that enhance the quality of health care and improve and save lives,” says White. “Look in any modern operating room or intensive care unit, and you will see enduring evidence of Jim’s creative solutions to vexing medical problems.” Sorenson’s career as an inventor began in the late 1950s, as a co-founder of Deseret Pharmaceuticals, which later became a major division of Becton Dickinson. Sorenson roamed from one hospital to another, observing doctors at work in his relentless search for novel patient care ideas. Watching doctors prepare for surgery, he noted a consistent phenomenon – doctors rifling through batches of laundered cloth surgical masks until they found one that didn’t reek of smoke or halitosis. “Many people would have written this repeated scenario off as an unavoidable annoyance – but not Jim,” says White. Characteristically, Sorenson recognized a situation that wasn’t optimal, and quickly envisioned a solution – in this case, cost-effective disposable surgical masks. He began conducting experiments with a local microbiologist until they produced an extremely effective filter. When his original idea of sewing the masks proved too awkward and time-consuming to allow commercial viability, Sorenson directed an engineer to devise the first-ever machine for mass-producing sterile, disposable surgical masks. The new machine glued the seams of the masks together. The resulting product was an instant success, and this type of mask remains ubiquitous in operating rooms and manufacturing facilities worldwide. Sorenson’s disposable mask experience illustrates the remarkable extent to which his gift for invention was accompanied by a penchant for commercialization. “Jim Sorenson was absolutely an American classic,” says Sir Harold Evans, a world-renowned author and social historian knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his service to journalism. “An invention itself is nothing unless inventor-innovators like Jim move them from a brainwave to the bustle of the marketplace.” Another major Sorenson innovation from his Deseret days was the disposable plastic intravenous catheter. Previously, patients had to deal with inflexible steel intravenous needles, which often caused soreness and bruising. Sorenson’s solution was a hollow, thin-walled stainless steel needle that guided a tiny, flexible plastic catheter into the patient’s vein. The needle was then removed, leaving the catheter behind. This less-invasive solution was an immediate success, and disposable catheters are still the predominant product of choice for intravenous and intravascular medical procedures. Sorenson later left Deseret Pharmaceuticals to pursue his own vision. While he waited for a non-compete agree- ment with his former partners to expire, he made a dramatic departure from his prior role as pharmaceuticals and medical devices leader – building Levoy’s, a lingerie manufacturer that featured a clothing line with the theme “Elegance in Modesty.” Sorenson’s hallmark innovation was strongly in evidence at LeVoy’s – this time in the business process area. LeVoy’s was one of the world’s first successful direct marketing businesses, selling its wares through a network of women who went door-to-door and sponsored home sales parties. Though he honored his commitment not to traffic in medical device products while his non-competition agreement was in effect, Sorenson’s mind continued to churn out imaginative ideas; in 1962, he launched Sorenson Research from LeVoy’s offices. “We’ve all heard countless stories about businesses that started in the proverbial ‘inventor’s garage,’” says White, “but how many can truly say they were started in the offices of a purveyor of modest lingerie? I think it’s safe to say Sorenson Research is one of the few companies that can claim this proud heritage.” The early focus of Sorenson’s new company was extending the reach of plastic catheters into arteries, and ultimately all the way into the heart. His efforts to obtain readings through catheters of conditions within the body that could be used in surgical and therapeutic settings led to an extraordinary collaboration – with fellow Utahn Dr. Homer Warner, a world-renowned pioneer in the use of computers in medicine. Together, Sorenson and Warner created the world’s first real-time cardiovascular laboratory computers for monitoring conditions in the living human heart. This invention ushered in a watershed for medical diagnostics and treatments, dramatically enhancing cardiovascular surgeries and treatments while enabling the development of many new processes and procedures. A steady stream of industry-changing innovations flowed out of Sorenson Research: Receptal addressed the problem of collecting and disposing of bodily fluids and waste from surgery and other medical procedures. Intraflo, which discharged a small continuous stream of fluid to stop blood clots from forming and clogging catheter openings, extended the time for which catheters and monitoring devices could function effectively. Dialaflo managed the flow of fluid from the catheter with greater precision. The Sorenson ATS Auto-Transfusion system recycled blood lost during surgery or trauma so it could be re-used by the same patient – thereby reducing risks from contamination or incompatibility from donated blood, while saving money and conserving the blood supply in the hospital or clinic. “It’s a fair statement that the products of Sorenson Research revolutionized essential aspects of critical patient care,” says White. At the peak of its activity from the late 1970s to 1980, when it was sold to Abbott, Sorenson Research produced and sold approximately 500 products. The company was generating more than $50 million in annual revenues and growing at a clip of more than 40 percent annually. Yet in an era of 20-plus-percent interest rates, it was undercapitalized, so Sorenson approached Abbott with a proposal to sell off part of Sorenson Research. Then-Abbott CEO Jim Schoellhorn countered with a proposal to acquire the entire organization. In a previous interview with Utah Business, Sorenson recalled picking up the Abbott negotiating team at SLC International Airport: “We arrived in our business suits, and watched them climb off the plane dressed in cowboy attire. They must have been looking forward to a signing at the Sorenson family ranch in Oakley.” When the deal was consummated, Sorenson received $100 million in Abbott stock, making him the single largest shareholder of Abbott (and later, Hospira), a distinction he held until his death. The relationship between Abbott and Sorenson was symbiotic – the Sorenson products diversified the product pipeline of the Abbott Critical Care division and helped Abbott extend its global leadership in the hospital products category; Abbott’s global reach and influence introduced Sorenson products to a greatly expanded market. Ultimately, Abbott Critical Care was rolled into Hospira, a major global hospital products company spun out from Abbott in 2004. The success of Abbott and Hospira stock helped make Sorenson Utah’s richest individual with a net worth of $4.5 billion, according to Forbes’ 2007 list of the world’s wealthiest people. Launching a New Industry in the Twilight of Life As he moved into his 70s – a time when most people are content to enjoy the fruits of retirement – Sorenson rushed full throttle into one of the most ambitious projects of his lifetime: helping launch the nascent genetic genealogy industry. Late in life, he had lost none of his visionary zeal. “Genetic genealogy as an industry wasn’t even on the map when Jim got involved,” said Dr. Scott Woodward, a renowned genetic researcher and scientist involved in the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene. “He started with only a vision and dream of what could be, and put his effort into making it happen; now it has generated a whole industry.” During the 1990s, Sorenson collaborated with Woodward to create the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF), a non-profit organization created to connect people throughout the world and across generations by building the world’s most diverse and comprehensive collection of DNA and corresponding genealogical information. SMGF has collected and analyzed DNA samples, together with four-generation pedigree charts, from volunteers in more than 170 countries throughout the world, in collaboration with prominent scientists and researchers at many of the world’s leading research institutions. SMGF’s aim is to foster a greater sense of identity, connection and belonging among people everywhere, and to promote peace. “Jim’s vision was that when people knew that we were all connected in a very real sense as members of a single genetic human family, that they would treat one another differently and better,” says Woodward. Evans attributes much of Sorenson’s extraordinary success to altruistism: “It is customary to refer to Jim Sorenson as a great innovator and humanitarian,” he says. “True. But I prefer to say great humanitarian and innovator, in that order. It was a humanitarian impulse, a feeling for his fellow men, that inspired him.” Sorenson’s “humanitarian impulse” was manifest in a host of philanthropic projects – primarily in education, health care and social services. Sorenson’s sense of social responsibility was attended by a fierce rigor, and his convictions led him to follow a steep upward trajectory. He thrived on achieving what others thought was impossible, and was fond of saying, “There are two ways to look at a problem: ‘I can’t do it;’ or, ‘I can’t do it – yet.’” “There were never obstacles for Jim – only opportunities to overcome,” says Woodward. “He would drive us to goals that seemed unattainable, but once we committed to them we almost invariably found new and creative ways to achieve them.” When SMGF didn’t get genetic results back fast enough from outside parties, Sorenson founded his own high-volume genetic testing laboratory, Sorenson Genomics. Sorenson Genomics was the first laboratory accredited for genetic genealogy purposes, and the world’s only private genetic laboratory invited to participate in the identification of victims in the aftermath of the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. Later, Sorenson added Sorenson Forensics to his portfolio of genetic organizations. The company quickly established a penchant for helping local and federal law enforcement officers solve “cold cases” – cases previously tabled for lack of evidence. For Woodward, Sorenson’s life and example are compelling evidence for the idea that an individual can still exercise tremendous influence in the world today, guided by faith and a bold sustaining vision. “Jim taught me that the key is to set your sights extremely high. Where you set your sights determines your trajectory, and where you ultimately end up.” The adventure of life is to learn The purpose of life is to grow The nature of life is to change The challenge of life is to overcome The essence of life is to care The opportunity of life is to serve The secret of life is to dare The spice of life is to befriend The beauty of life is to give. –By James LeVoy Sorenson
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