Georgia Tech Alumni Article


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Georgia Tech Alumni Article

  1. 1. FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/16/10 3:12 PM Page 42
  2. 2. FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/17/10 4:42 PM Page 43 Broken Quadriplegic Ross Mason has an ambitious plan to fix spinal cord injury treatment M Story by Van Jensen fast that the slight movement of the handle- Photos by Kelvin Kuo bar threw it off course. The bike launched off the trail and landed with the rider’s feet still athematician Edward locked into the pedals, both sliding headfirst Lorenz was preparing down a hill. to run a computer The cyclist’s head collided with some- weather prediction in thing large and hard enough to crack open 1961 when he took a his helmet. When he and the bike finally shortcut. He entered .506 into the number came to rest, a piece of brush was pressed sequence instead of the full .506127. against his throat. He could barely breathe. That seemingly insignificant differ- By instinct, the rider’s brain commanded ence completely changed the predicted his hands to push away the brush. weather pattern. Lorenz’s finding helped His hands would not move. establish chaos theory — the idea that dynamic systems can be highly sensitive What Needs Fixing to the smallest of influences. Ross Mason, IE 92, lives in an expansive A talk by Lorenz famously was titled home in Atlanta. Off of a wide entrance hall is “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in his office. Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” A broad desk is covered with papers but On the evening of Aug. 2, 2007, a bee organized. The dark wooden walls are deco- was flying along the Silver Comet Trail rated with portraits of leaders from the near Atlanta. The bee came into the path American Revolution and Civil War. The X-rays from Grady Memorial Hospital show of a small but athletic man riding a bicy- Now 40, Mason enters, his motorized the injuries that put Ross Mason in a wheelchair. cle. It collided with his face, becoming stuck in his helmet. The rider wheelchair moving silently across the floor. His features have raised a hand to brush away the bee. As he did, his elbow grazed rounded since his days as a world-class athlete, but he still has the the handlebar. same smile and energy. The man was a competitive cyclist, and the bike was moving so Gisele Umutesi, who works as his caregiver, walks in. She fled July/August 2010 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine 43
  3. 3. FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/17/10 4:41 PM Page 44 the genocide in Rwanda and was granted A Life of Extremes estate market was booming. Seeing another asylum in the United States before landing challenge, he started a real estate firm in the Ross Mason grew up in Madison, Ga., in Mason’s employ. Umutesi asks about a city. Mason leased apartments from Russian where his family owned a peach farm going remote control to turn off the TV in another owners, renovated the properties and then back several generations. room. Mason starts to suggest places it rented them to Westerners who were staying He followed his father, Robert, IM 60, to might be before realizing it is sitting in his in the country for business. Georgia Tech. Wanting to squeeze the most lap. He can’t feel it. He operated the company for 12 years, out of every experience, Ross Mason became In one corner of the room stands an even after leaving Russia for Wharton in as involved as a student can be. He worked easel that props up a whiteboard. Scrawled 1994. Once, he got a call that a unit had been a co-op student at IBM, started a company to across the board is what looks like a family make energy-efficient lighting, served as a taken over by Russian mobsters and con- tree. Names and ideas are organized into a dorm resident assistant, joined Alpha Tau verted to a brothel. The police suspected hierarchy. At the top, enclosed in a rectangle, Omega, studied abroad, went on a mission Mason’s involvement and threatened to is “HINRI Labs.” trip to Poland and, finally, was elected stu- have him arrested. The Healthcare Institute for Neuro- dent government president. He finally had a friend with connections Recovery and Innovation ( On the recommendation of Dean Jim go to the mayor of Moscow, and authorities is Mason’s nonprofit. The scattered notes all Dull, Mason was accepted to the Wharton forced the mob out of the apartment. “I got a connected to HINRI form a road map, a path School. He deferred when a family friend degree in entrepreneurial management from to fixing what has been broken. offered a challenging opportunity: a teaching the Russian school of hard knocks,” he says. Mason isn’t obsessed with repairing his position in Siberia and chance to establish a After interning at Morgan Stanley while spinal cord. Always one to seek out chal- student exchange program with the at Wharton, Mason helped the investment lenges, he has taken it upon himself to repair University System of Georgia. firm open its Atlanta office once he received the entire system of spinal cord injury treat- During his two years in Russia, Mason his MBA in 1997. He enjoyed the position, ment and to make Georgia the center of a visited Moscow and learned that, in the but he missed the freedom of being an entre- revolution in regenerative medicine. wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the real preneur. 44 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine July/August 2010
  4. 4. FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/17/10 4:40 PM Page 45 He left the firm in 1999 and Zealand Ironman, what was to be his used his free time to travel with latest extreme challenge. family to Zambia, where they volunteered at an AIDS hospital. The Biggest Obstacle “That experience really Mason was struggling to breathe. changed my life,” he says. “It He again told his hands to move. They was so transformative. The peo- wouldn’t. Neither would his legs. ple in Africa have the most Finally, his lower arm responded amazing perspective on life. I and pushed the branch away. He could knew that health care was my breathe again, but he still couldn’t get calling.” up. But first he flew straight to Some people hiking along the trail the Canadian Arctic, where he found him and called for an ambu- and some friends planned to be lance. When the emergency medical the first sport divers in the frigid technicians arrived to take him to the waters there. Mason laughs hospital, one asked if Mason under- while recalling the dangerous stood how seriously he’d been injured. adventures they had, including Mason said he did. The technician losing a snowmobile through asked why Mason continued to smile. broken ice and later diving to “I told him I’d put my life in God’s retrieve it from the ocean floor. hands,” he says. “If it was my time to The group, which later estab- go, it was my time to go. If not, God lished the Arctic Kingdom must still have something else for me adventure company, swam to do here.” alongside polar bears, whales It wasn’t his time. and walruses. At Grady Memorial Hospital, It was just the latest adven- Sanjay Gupta was Mason’s surgeon. ture in a life full of pushing Gupta, the CNN medical correspon- toward extremes. Mason had dent, stabilized Mason’s smashed ver- been rock climbing, spelunking and surfing He helped the Free Clinic Network raise tebrae. around the world. He was a NASCAR-certi- $600,000 in six months, which allowed vol- Slowly some movement returned to fied driver and once bungee jumped off of unteers to care for more than 250,000 home- Mason’s arms as he went through recovery Victoria Falls. less, indigent and uninsured Georgians. That and then rehabilitation in the following After leaving the Arctic, Mason moved care saved the state about $400 million in months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. to California for five years and helped start a 2009, according to the state auditor. Among his visitors in the hospital was Newt health care Internet software company. He “Georgia has a wonderful advantage in Gingrich. saw how the state invested in fledgling health care, but we haven’t focused as a But more challenges awaited Mason. He enterprises and future technologies, which state,” Mason says, referring to Georgia’s learned that he’d suffered a complete break led to the growth of Silicon Valley. highly rated research institutions and hospi- of his spinal cord. He’d never walk again. A His next stop was in Germany, where he tals. “Counties are competing against each month passed before he could sit up without served as an adviser to the Volkswagen other to promote local hospitals. There is a losing consciousness. health care venture accelerator fund. The focus on collaborative investment in He needed to have his bladder drained fund invested 280 million Euros in 90 com- California that we don’t have here.” every few hours by the nurses. But one day panies, including 30 early-stage health care On Aug. 2, 2007, Mason met for lunch his bladder filled more quickly than normal, businesses. with several fellow entrepreneurs. They and a nurse at first refused to insert a “I wanted to develop a health care early- talked about a company started out of catheter despite Mason’s spiking blood pres- stage investment model in Georgia,” he said. research from Harvard and MIT that uses sure. With a loose plan in mind of working as nanotech polymer implants to restore spinal “It felt like I had a spit running through a health care entrepreneur in his home state, cord function in injured patients. Mason and my body, and I was being roasted over a Mason returned to Atlanta. He became a fel- the others wanted to recruit the company to fire,” Mason says. “That was the most help- low at Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Georgia. less feeling. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t push Transformation, vice chair of the state’s Mason left the meeting and seven hours a button. You’re completely dependent on department of community health board and later started a bicycle ride along the Silver someone else, and if they’re negligent, chair of the Georgia Free Clinic Network. Comet Trail. He was training for the New you’re going to pay the price the rest of your July/August 2010 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine 45
  5. 5. “ FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/17/10 4:39 PM Page 46 ” Some of my dearest friends just went away because they couldn’t handle it. life. I was a 38-year-old man, and I just manent paralysis isn’t the injury itself but In August 2009, Georgia Sen. Johnny wanted to go to the bathroom.” the inflammation that follows. He met with Isakson and Mason hosted a meeting with Finally, the nurse drained Mason’s blad- leading researchers from China, where sur- the state’s health care, business and philan- der, which by then was four times fuller geons routinely cut open the spinal cord to thropic leaders to discuss opportunities to than it should have been. Mason says he relieve inflammation. There, about half of become a player in the industry, particularly could’ve easily gone into dysreflexic shock those with complete spinal cord injuries the nexus of engineering, computer science and suffered brain damage. walk again. In the United States, where sur- and biology. While Mason says the support of his geons operate around the spinal cord to In the meeting, Mason pointed out that family and friends was crucial for him mak- secure the vertebrae, only 1 percent of other states were investing millions or even ing it through that difficult time, his injury patients with complete injuries walk again. billions in bioengineering research and was too difficult for some of them to deal Patients in China also receive a standard health care technologies. By contrast, with. of six hours of therapy a day for six days a Georgia announced it was committing only “Some of my dearest friends just went week, no matter how serious the injury. In $400,000 to become a “global center of med- away because they couldn’t handle it,” he the United States, insurance will pay for ical innovation.” Mason needed to find says. “They don’t want to be around me. rehab only for those who have “incomplete” another way to fund his dream. I’ve had that happen with a number of peo- injuries — in which patients retain some Earlier in 2009, the Department of ple I’ve known all of my life.” function or sensation below the break. But Veterans Affairs created the Veterans One of the biggest challenges that arose even those patients receive only three to five Innovation Center to provide funding for was cost. The expense of his treatment began hours of treatment per week. research that could improve the lives of to mount. Mason’s insurance company “That’s unacceptable,” Mason says. injured veterans. And it was looking for a didn’t want to pay for his care and claimed home. his injury was a pre-existing condition. Overcoming Challenges “Why shouldn’t that be in Georgia?” “If your insurance company can success- One day during rehab, a nurse handed Mason asks. “A partnership with the mili- fully fight you for two years, they can defer Mason a pencil and asked him to write the tary could make the state an international payment until you go on Medicaid,” he says. alphabet. leader in restorative medicine.” “Most patients with a spinal cord injury end “I asked if I’d get a diaper as a reward,” Quickly, the lines in Mason’s road map up having to pay for rehab out of pocket.” he recalls his sarcastic response. “Why not came together. Augusta is home to Fort Mason also tried alternative treatment tell me to write a letter to a wounded sol- Gordon and the Charlie Norwood VA methods such as interactive manual therapy, dier? That would serve a purpose. That Medical Center. The city has the nation’s but those cost thousands of dollars a week. would motivate me to write again.” largest warrior transition battalion, burn cen- The expense of spinal cord injury treat- Mason had the military on his mind. ter and active duty spinal cord injury popu- ment is taxing the health care system, He’d been working on his plan to fix spinal lation. Atlanta has a VA medical center, top according to a 2009 report from the injury treatment, and he wanted to establish hospitals and Georgia Tech and Emory, Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Georgia as the center of spinal cord research. which operate the joint Wallace H. Coulter Spinal cord injury treatment alone costs And he’d discovered that a partnership with Department of Biomedical Engineering. The $40.5 billion per year in the United States. the U.S. military was key. department is ranked in the top three in the Nearly 5.6 million Americans live with Mason had met with Gingrich and lead- nation for graduate and undergraduate bio- some form of paralysis, the report states. ing researchers. He testified before Congress engineering programs. About 1.3 million are living with spinal cord in March 2009 regarding the congressionally Hundreds of other little details were injuries. directed medical research program’s first gathered into the plan, with Mason always Mason began to do more research dur- allocation for spinal cord injury research. But seeing more opportunities and more prob- ing the following two years of recovery and one problem kept arising: “bringing money lems to fix. He wants to recruit the learned that one of the main causes of per- to Georgia.” Morehouse School of Medicine into the 46 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine July/August 2010
  6. 6. FE_Spine kim.qxp:Layout 1 6/16/10 3:13 PM Page 47 Georgia Research Alliance, create a statewide new technologies. Right now it’s a totally dis- wield such great influence, the logic collaboration on clinical trials and fix technol- connected system with everyone operating in extends that people’s actions become mean- ogy transfer, among others. silos and not communicating.” ingless next to the whims of an anarchic He launched the nonprofit HINRI Labs But on his whiteboard, everything con- world. earlier this year to serve as the center of this nects. It is a completed circuit, each part com- But the butterfly effect simply means effort, a single connection point for all of the municating and partnering toward a single that, in certain systems, the fluttering of a disparate groups, agencies and individuals goal: repairing broken spinal cords. butterfly’s wings could have a substantial involved. Mason hopes to partner the non- The first step for making the map a reali- impact. That butterfly isn’t a random factor profit with the Veterans Innovation Center to ty is recruiting the Veterans Innovation but part of the system. The fluttering of its bring funding to researchers and then to spin Center. Currently its leaders are deciding wings is a minuscule but necessary piece of off for-profit businesses from that research. between establishing the center in Georgia or the larger plan. Mason talks quickly, constantly gesturing Illinois. To bring the center to Georgia, Mason believes in something larger, that with his hands and directing his wheelchair Mason has been raising a needed $3 million, his injury was necessary to help the lives of back and forth across the floor. The intensity with less than $1 million to go. others. of his days as an extreme athlete and serial He’s planning fundraisers to make sure “An injury like mine is a divine gift and entrepreneur haven’t faded. He’s just learned he’ll meet that objective. It’s just one more a sacred trust,” Mason says. “I’m honored new ways to channel it. hurdle he’s determined to overcome. that God would trust me with a situation like “We’ll take intellectual property and this.” commercialize it,” he says. “We can drive col- Taking Flight He believes that greatness can grow from laboration between PhD researchers, clini- There is a common misperception about little things, like the fluttering of a butterfly cians, patients and companies with exciting chaos theory. Because such small things can or the flight of a bee. July/August 2010 Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine 47