Sorenson Development, Inc.
Sierra College, California
Sometimes called "the quiet tycoon," James LeVoy Sorenson is an entrepreneur and inventor of medical devices, most notably the disposable surgical mask, the plastic venous catheter, and a cardiovascular lab computer system for monitoring the heart in real time. Inasmuch as he holds over 40 U.S. patents, it's fair to say that one or more Sorenson invention grace every operating room and intensive-care unit in America.
Medical devices have likewise fortified Sorenson's own financial health. Forbes magazine ranks the low-profile Utahan as the 57th richest American, with a $4.3 billion net worth exceeding household-name moguls like Ted Turner and Donald Trump.
Sorenson is also a classic rags-to-riches American success story. He grew up in Yuba City, California, where his father dug sewer lines and his family lived in a tarpapered converted chicken coop. Because of his slow speech (later diagnosed as dyslexia), his first-grade teacher told his mother he was mentally retarded and would never learn to read. But teaching himself to read became a key to his future success. "Overcoming dyslexia was the thing that in my life that allowed me to do other things," Sorenson told the Sacramento Bee. "I believe that you have to learn things at your own pace, then find your personal rhythm and balance."
He performed well enough in high school to dream of becoming a physician, selling newspapers and peddling wind-fallen almonds door-to-door for a dime a bucket in his spare time and learning important lessons about himself. "I learned there are two kinds of thoughts: I can't do it. And I can't do it—yet," Sorenson said.
After attending Placer Junior College (now Sierra Community College) in Rocklin, California, he undertook a Mormon mission to New England. He never made it to med school, but after World War II ended he did land a job with Upjohn selling pharmaceuticals to physicians in Salt Lake City.
In 1957, Sorenson left Upjohn to co-found Deseret Pharmaceutical, a drug resale firm that evolved into a conduit for his medical devices. He conceived of disposable surgical masks while watching surgeons prep with cloth masks. "All the doctors were Mormon, so they would sniff masks for alcohol or cigarettes," Sorenson told Forbes. "Any that smelled funny went into the trash."
Sorenson's next enterprise was Sorenson Research, which spawned Utah's burgeoning biotech industry by creating the first blood-recycling system for trauma and surgical procedures and the first modern catheter. In 1980, he sold the company to Abbot Laboratories for stock worth $100 million. Today, Sorenson is Abbot's largest stockholder and his stock is worth $2.5 billion.
Sorenson went on to found a diverse group of enterprises: the Sorenson Group real estate companies whose 520,000 acres of holdings include a mountain in Park City, Utah; the Sorenson VP-100 videophone that uses Web connections to help the hearing impaired make phone calls; and Sorenson Medical, which manufactures the microchip-driven ambulatory pain pumps used by Army medics in Iraq and Afghanistan to inject anesthetic.
Amassing a fortune has also permitted Sorenson to do bigger and better things. "Wealth is an opportunity for further achievement," he says, and that certainly includes philanthropic endeavors. He donated more than $30 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to restore the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois, funded the J.L. Sorenson Physical Education Building at Southern Utah University, made major grants to the Deseret Foundation of Utah, and purchased homes for single mothers in financial distress.
His latest great philanthropic and entrepreneurial challenge is the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF), which is using DNA samples to create the world's most comprehensive correlated genetic and genealogical database. SMGF has already collected more than 60,000 DNA samples, along with four-generation pedigree charts, from volunteers in more than 100 countries. "I can't think of anything that matters more than reminding people everywhere that, in a very real sense, we are all brothers and sisters," says Sorenson.