By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorLike too many of us, local resident John Major’s immediate and extended family has experienced the brutality of such maladies as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and heart disease. Both of his parents died of heart attacks.
“So you see these things happening, and you say to yourself, there’s got to be science that can change things for quality of life and for length of life. That starts the thinking.”
And, for Major, 64, a leader of San Diego’s high tech community and a former Qualcomm executive, the “thinking” resulted recently in his election as board chairman of the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, after serving one year on the board.
He succeeds Samuel Strober, M.D., an immunologist and Stanford University professor of medicine, who will remain on the board and on the Institute’s scientific advisory board.
Admittedly, Major says, his business career has largely been in the computer sciences and not in the more complex biological sciences, but, as he pointed out, “I have some organizational skills that can assist organizations in progressing from one stage to the next.”
And that’s what he hopes to accomplish for the highly regarded nonprofit research institute.
Last year, the Institute’s scientists published more than 125 papers revealing impressive research advances in immunology and sharing their findings with fellow scientists worldwide.
“One of my goals as board chairman,” Major said, “will be to help raise the community’s awareness of the Institute and its work on an incredibly broad spectrum of diseases.”
Founded in 1988, the Institute is a biomedical research organization, with a research staff of more than 100 Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s focusing on increasing our understanding of the immune system leading to the prevention of infectious and autoimmune diseases and cancers through vaccines, treatments and cures. The Institute is also pioneering immune-based approaches to heart disease.
We interviewed Major in a conference room at the Institute located on Athena Circle in La Jolla.
Major is the non-executive chairman of Broadcom, Inc., an innovator and global leader in semiconductors for wired and wireless communications; founder and president of MTSG, a private investment, consulting and governance company; and chairman of CommNexus San Diego, a nonprofit promoting the region’s the high tech industry. He also serves on the board of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation.
He was born in Irvington, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark. His father owned a construction company, John J. Major Incorporated. “He built a good piece of what is the Picatinny Arsenal,” Major said of his father.
The 6,400-acre arsenal complex in northern New Jersey is a military research, manufacturing and testing facility for various munitions, weapons and armor systems.
“I spent my summers and a good part of my school years on job sites with my father at the Picatinny Arsenal. Lots of great memories,” Major recalled.
Major initially thought he might become a physicist, “I loved physics,” and enrolled at the University of Rochester with that possibility in mind, but reconsidered when he realized, it would require years of study before he could even hope to earn a living.
“And that’s what my dad taught me. He taught me that you really need to have a plan. You really need to have a career, and, if it wasn’t going to be with John J. Major Incorporated, then it better be with something.”
He switched his major to mechanical and aerospace engineering
Soon after earning his undergraduate degree in 1969, he joined SCM making printers for the U.S. Army and enrolled in night school to earn an M.B.A. from Northwestern University Kellogg School and later a law degree from Loyola University and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois.
After 10 years with SCM, he moved on to the Harris Corporation, manufacturer of radio and TV transmission equipment, as director of international service.
“And if you were a dictator,” Major said, “what would be very important to you would be to have a way to get your face, your voice, in front of all of your people. So my big accounts were Idi Amin of Uganda, Chief Abiola of Nigeria and the Shah of Iran.
“And all those people wanted to take their oil money and convert that into radio and television transmission equipment and we would provide it,” he said.
Asked how he felt about working with dictators like the notorious Idi Amin, he said: “It was interesting. Because he would occasionally eat somebody, we had to pay our people a four times bonus to go into that country. Uganda is a beautiful, beautiful country, but because of this legend, whether it’s true or not, that he actually ate people, we had to give people four times bonus ... People really have an aversion to being eaten.”
Major visited Uganda, but did not meet Idi Amin and, so, fortunately, was not invited to dinner.
He joined Motorola where he worked for 20 years and where he became chief technology officer. “While there, I started a business that you think of today as Nextel. My team developed this idea of integrated dispatch and cellular telephony, now owned by Sprint.”
He subsequently joined Qualcomm in 1998 for two years serving a corporate executive vice president and president of its wireless infrastructure division and later CEO of Wireless Knowledge, a joint venture of Qualcomm and Microsoft.
Prior to forming his own consulting and investment company, MTSG, in 2003, he served as chairman and CEO of Novatel Wireless, Inc. in San Diego, a privately-held mobile wireless software company that he took public.
Addressing the challenge at hand as board chairman of the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, also known as LIAI, Major is the first to acknowledge that the acronym LIAI doesn’t exactly “flow off your lips.”
“It’s not very well known,” he said. “So I want to do is find a way to raise the profile of awareness in the community about the work that LIAI does and increase its overall support, let’s just say, to a next level so that it can be thought of as on a par with some of the other better known names like Sanford-Burnham [Medical Research Institute].”
Asked how he hopes to accomplish that, he said, “It’s more of an art than a science, but part of it is to build a larger board of people who are financially committed to the success of the organization, who want to be part of contributing to its success and want to be part of the governance as well.”
The current financial position of the Institute, he said, is “very strong,” but “they don’t have much of an endowment and we would want to build that endowment.”
At the time of this interview there were 11 members on the board.
An expanded board, he said, would, in addition to contributing ideas and money, also develop additional relationships between the Institute and the community.