John Sperling was in his office in Phoenix when he got the
call. His longtime friend Lou Hawthorne was phoning to tell
him that scientists at Texas A&M University had successfully
cloned a cat, the first-ever genetically engineered pet. That
was great news for Sperling, the sole funder of the project.
Back in 1997, he and Hawthorne had selected a team of genetic
experts and given them lots of money for research. In went Sperling's
$4 million and out came a purring bundle of fur. Yet it wasn't
exactly what the billionaire Arizona businessman had hoped for.
In fact, Sperling wasn't all that excited by the news. What
he'd really been wanting to do was clone his dog.
Missy, an affable 15-year-old mutt (three-quarters Border collie
and a quarter Siberian husky), is the real reason the world
now has a cloned cat. Sperling knows that when Missy dies he
could simply get another dog, but he thinks that his chances
of finding one just like her are slim. "She's an incredible
athlete. Utterly courageous and fearless. She'll get on top
of a cliff and cast herself off and somehow get to the bottom
without killing herself. I've met a lot of dogs, but I've never
seen anything remotely like that," says Sperling, who once
got in his car and clocked Missy running at 35 miles per hour.
"That was one of the episodes where John fell more deeply
in love with her," recalls Hawthorne, a filmmaker and producer
of interactive media who is the CEO of Genetic Savings &
Clone, the company Sperling set up to oversee the so-called
Missyplicity project. "When he stopped to let her in the
car, her paws were bloody, and he saw that as an example of
how much heart she has. She was giving it her all."
Like many pet owners, Sperling likes to think his dog is special.
In moments of quiet longing, who hasn't wished his or her beloved
pet were still alive or had ten more years to live rather than
ten months? A few years ago the good people at the American
Animal Hospital Association gave new insight into the depths
of Americans' devotion to their pets when they revealed a survey
showing that 37% of pet owners actually leave messages on answering
machines for their cat or dog while they're out of town. While
Sperling insists he's never done that, he does admit to doting
on Missy excessively--he gives her daily drug and vitamin supplements
designed especially for her. And he is, after all, trying to
Back in February, when Sperling showed the world his cloned
cat and announced his plan for a business that would clone people's
pets, he was condemned by many as an exploiter and an opportunist.
Sperling didn't mind a bit--he never met an establishment he
didn't want to rebel against. A partly self-educated dyslexic,
an antibusiness tycoon, a left-leaning academic who founded
a for-profit university, Sperling has spent most of his 81 years
bucking convention. For almost all that span, few people noticed.
Then suddenly, at age 73, Sperling became a very rich man when
the company he founded went public. Since then he has been energetically
funding projects like saltwater agriculture and the decriminalization
of illegal drugs, and he promises that when he dies, he will
leave his fortune to a foundation for funding unpopular causes.
Says Sperling: "I don't want to waste my time investing
in popular things. Anyone can go and give money for kids' literacy
and things like that, but how many people are going to invest
in unpopular things?"
That attitude puts him squarely in the grand tradition of eccentric
American rich guys who use their wealth to pursue quixotic agendas,
like Ed Bass, who built the infamous Biosphere, and Joe Firmage,
the tech entrepreneur who funds research on aliens. But unlike
them, Sperling came from nothing and can't forget how life looked
at the bottom; he's interested in addressing what he sees as
social injustice and the hypocrisies of the rich and powerful.
"He's always supported the underdog because he used to
be one and because he's been bruised and beaten up by those
who weren't," says his friend Jorge Klor de Alva, who has
known Sperling for 30 years.
Even though Sperling spent 25 years as an academic believing
that corporations were "terrible"--little more than
environmentally destructive, morally bankrupt agents for the
enrichment of top executives--now he's chairman of a $6 billion
public corporation. When the holding company of the University
of Phoenix (UOP), the for-profit school for working adults he
started in the '70s, went public in 1994, he netted $320 million.
Today he's worth about $1 billion, thanks to continued growth--the
UOP currently has 140,000 students in 22 states and revenues
of about $900 million--and the successful IPO of the online
division in 2000.
Short and slight, with a round, sturdy face topped by ample
amounts of curly hair, Sperling doesn't come close to either
looking or acting his age. Twice divorced and single for the
past 37 years, at 81 he's working as feverishly as most people
do at 50. He gets up every day at 5:30 a.m. to do some combination
of hiking, weight training, and jogging on a treadmill, then
moves to a large, airy home office adjoining the sprawling Tuscan-style
villa in Phoenix he bought a few years ago. There he spends
his days e-mailing and talking with business partners for his
Sperling is constantly dreaming up new ideas. The notion of
cloning, for instance, came to him at his weekend home in San
Francisco one morning five years ago when he and Hawthorne were
having breakfast. They were in the middle of a discussion about
Dolly the sheep, which had just been cloned by scientists in
Edinburgh, Scotland, when Sperling looked around the room, saw
Missy lying happily on the floor, and joked, "Hey, we should
clone Missy." Two seconds later he thought, Wait, why not?
And just like that he charged Hawthorne with a fact-finding
mission. "I gave John a very simple report that said it
would cost at least $2 million for at least two years, and it
would require some of the best scientists in the world, with
no guarantees of success," says Hawthorne, who figured
that would be the end of it. To his surprise, Sperling said,
"Okay, go ahead."
To lead the project, Hawthorne selected experienced cloning
researcher Dr. Mark Westhusin at Texas A&M. Since the summer
of 1998, Westhusin and his 30-person team have run through Sperling's
original $2 million, plus $2 million more. Sperling has invested
another $6 million in GS&C to create a for-profit cloning
farm so that other people can clone their pets too. The technology
and scientific techniques to do that don't exist yet, but when
they do--and all indications from the advancing march of science
seem to suggest they will--GS&C will be ready with a 2,700-acre
animal colony and a fully automated, robotic cloning factory.
It's a vision of the future that makes some people shudder,
including the folks at the Humane Society, PETA, and the ASPCA,
but Sperling isn't concerned. "Oh, come on," he says.
"Aren't there more important things in the world to fret
over? Pet cloning isn't hurting anyone."
The son of a Missouri sharecropper, Sperling lived a meager
and rather miserable childhood. His father was a wandering ne'er-do-well
who beat him. "[The day my father died] was the happiest
of my life," he wrote in his 2000 autobiography, Rebel
With a Cause. After graduating from high school in 1939, Sperling
joined the Merchant Marine, where, on ships sailing around the
world, he continued his education on his own. At age 18, dyslexic
and still mostly illiterate, he borrowed books from shipmates
and taught himself to read. Poring through novels like Tom Jones,
Notes From the Underground, and The Great Gatsby, Sperling fell
in love with the process of education, a love that would last
his entire life.
Soon after he left the Merchant Marine, Sperling paid his way
through Reed College in Portland, Ore., by working part-time
at a shipyard. He then enlisted in the Army Air Corps and used
the GI Bill to get a master's degree in English history from
the University of California at Berkeley. Still not sure what
he wanted to do with his life, Sperling collected a Ph.D. in
economic history from Cambridge University and decided to go
into teaching. After several gigs in the Midwest, he became
a tenured humanities and history professor at San Jose State,
where he developed a reputation as a rebel, organizing a teachers'
union and advocating strikes.
Sperling loved the interaction with students but began to tire
of the culture of academia and the dinner parties of "lousy
wine and tuna-and-macaroni casseroles" at professors' houses.
He also disliked the idle complacency of it all. "There
wasn't enough action. I like to apply concepts to the world,
and that's awfully hard to do in academia," says Sperling.
Then one day in 1972 he got an opportunity that was to change
his life. He was picked to run a federally funded series of
classes at San Jose State to help local police and schoolteachers
deal with juvenile delinquents. To his surprise, Sperling found
the students exceptionally eager to learn. Many of the teachers
wanted master's degrees, and the police officers wanted college
degrees. But there were very few degree-granting programs for
adults who worked during the day. Itching for something new
to do, Sperling took a proposal for an expanded, degree-granting
program for working adults to the academic vice president at
San Jose State. When the vice president rejected the idea, Sperling
quit his post and went looking elsewhere.
Sperling found an eager collaborator in a financially troubled
school, the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. On the advice
of one of the university's deans, Sperling organized the program
as a for-profit company, a move he never would have considered
on his own, given his views about corporations. Allen Calvin,
the USF dean who became something of a mentor to Sperling, helped
expand his perspective. The only way for the school, then called
the Institute for Professional Development, to grow and innovate,
Calvin said, was to throw it into the marketplace as a corporation.
Enrollment in USF's adult learning program took off. Some of
the early ideas Sperling applied to adult education--interactive,
peer-led learning groups, teachers with experience in their
fields, and emphasis on information you can use on the job over
abstract understanding of things like literature and political
theory--are still central to the UOP curriculum. But they're
things that make the school highly unconventional. Regulators
in the '70s didn't like the way Sperling stripped down education
to its most utilitarian levels, and to some extent they still
Kay Anderson, who in the 1970s ran the Western Association
of Schools and Colleges, the regional accrediting body for California,
felt that the IPD was academically anemic, a diploma mill of
sorts. He became Sperling's biggest nemesis, threatening to
revoke USF's accreditation and eventually running him out of
California and into Phoenix, a place Sperling chose because
it fell under the jurisdiction of what he felt were more progressive
regulators. Sperling says that the academic rigor of the school
has increased over the years, but he defends group learning.
"For a long time the accrediting agencies were convinced
that group assignments were cheating. But it's self-disciplining.
You have to trust students just as you trust your employees,"
Shortly after arriving in Arizona in 1977, the renamed University
of Phoenix won accreditation. But the battles continued. Every
time Sperling wanted to expand his unique brand of adult education
into a new state, which was often, he ran into hostile state
licensing agencies. Sometimes he'd get creative and do end runs
around the regulators, schmoozing with state legislators and
persuading them to propose laws that would allow him to operate
in their state without the approval of education authorities.
By the mid-'90s, most state licensing boards had given up trying
to fight the UOP's entry.
In 1994, Sperling formed a holding company called Apollo Group
to take the UOP public. After Apollo's IPO that December (Sperling
kept 30% of the shares), the stock began a steady climb. Investors
liked the University of Phoenix's high margins (current operating
margins are 21%; profit margins, 15%) and efficient business
model. At about $10,000 a year, UOP tuition isn't cheap. And
because the school lacks expensive buildings like gyms, dorms,
libraries, science labs, and student unions (students gather
for classes between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. in rented office space),
its costs are much lower than those of traditional universities.
Over the past 12 months alone, the stock has risen 70%.
Strangely enough, all of Sperling's success made him feel a
little bored, which he hates more than anything. "Everything
he does is a flight from boredom," says his only child,
Peter, 43, an Apollo board member who owns 13% of the stock.
Sperling started looking for a political cause he could get
involved in. Fighting regulators and dealing with state legislators
had taught him he had a passion for politics. "If I were
my son's age, I'd go buy myself a Senate seat," he says,
Since he isn't 43, Sperling took a different route. Two weeks
after the IPO, while in a meeting with Sam Vagenas, Arizona's
former deputy secretary of state, Sperling blurted out, "What
about drug law reform?" Since the Reagan and Bush Administrations,
Sperling had been compiling a file of newspaper clippings on
the war on drugs--stories about the $19 billion taxpayers spend
every year, editorials about the lack of success in stemming
the drug trade, and lots of statistics about the disproportionate
numbers of black and Hispanic men in prison for drug offenses.
"The war on drugs is a war against the minority poor,"
he told Vagenas. "And it's a welfare program for cops."
So Sperling, along with George Soros and Peter Lewis, the billionaire
chairman of Progressive Corp., began to underwrite a state-by-state
campaign to decriminalize illegal drugs, which means replacing
prison time with treatment. The achievements so far have been
impressive. Thanks to 17 successful state ballot initiatives
that Sperling paid to advertise and get petitions for, it's
now almost impossible to go to jail in states like Arizona and
California for using or possessing marijuana. "When we
first started this, being for drug reform was like saying you've
gone and joined the Man-Boy Love Association," chuckles
Sperling, who was first introduced to marijuana during a bout
with prostate cancer in the mid-'60s but now says his personal
drug use is "very limited."
Sperling doesn't like to think of himself as a do-gooder, but
he's clearly interested in social reform. Part of the reason
he's plowed $10 million into saltwater agriculture is that he
believes it will help restore the economy of a poor country
on the eastern coast of Africa. Seaphire, the company Sperling
has funded, is operating a huge farm along the coast of Eritrea
that's irrigated exclusively by seawater--a far more plentiful
resource than freshwater. The idea is to turn barren, seemingly
unusable desert into moneymaking and ecologically sustainable
land. The crop is a crispy, bright green plant called salicornia
that's eaten in Europe as a garnish or in salads and also produces
an edible and versatile oil that Seaphire CEO Roy Hodges thinks
has great potential for generating revenue. Sperling is also
funding research on genetically modified seeds that could allow
farmers to grow crops like tomatoes and grain using saltwater.
Biotech and agriculture experts say that in theory such an idea
holds great promise.
Sperling is also interested in benefiting himself, of course.
Kronos, the anti-aging clinic in Phoenix, was born mostly out
of Sperling's desire to extend his own life. It's one of the
half-dozen most sophisticated anti-aging clinics in the nation,
and Sperling expects it to begin turning a profit later this
year. Patients pay roughly $3,000 to get a complete picture
of their health, including results from 150 different tests
that identify their weaknesses and deficiencies. "People
who live to be really old age uniformly, and then at some point
their whole system shuts down and they die. But that's not the
case with most of us. We're subjected to the weakest link, and
we die of one particular thing," says Sperling. Strengthen
the weak links, the thinking goes, and you'll live healthier
longer. Kronos doctors and nutritionists do that by giving patients
personalized daily drug and vitamin supplements concocted by
Kronos' pharmacy in Las Vegas. Sperling, for instance, takes
23 pills a day.
Several months ago Sperling was in Genetic Savings & Clone's
lab in College Station, Texas, meeting with Westhusin. It's
a vast, 7,000-square-foot space that Sperling's team intends
to turn into an automated facility capable of producing 1,000
embryos an hour. Inside one room sits a shiny metal cylinder
filled with liquid nitrogen. Swimming in the nitrogen, encased
in tiny glass tubes, are tissue samples from dead pets that
hundreds of people have sent in from around the country, awaiting
the day when a small slice of DNA can be used to clone genetic
offspring. When that day dawns, the cells will be used to create
embryos that will then travel to a nearby ranch where pregnant
dogs and cats roam. There, cloned animals will be born and shipped
to their owners. It's an operation Sperling hopes will be enormously
profitable, tapping into the vast desire people have to, in
some sense, bring their favorite pets back to life.
But today cloning is still an imperfect science. Westhusin
and his team have created more than 100 cloned embryos that
were transferred to the wombs of 80 dogs, but the furthest they
got was one pregnancy that went to 38 days. Dogs, it turns out,
are the hardest mammals to clone. So, nearly four years later,
there's still no little Missy. "We know that [animal] cloning
is possible, but how to replicate it is something else,"
says Sperling. "That's a couple of years at the very minimum.
We were just lucky with the cat."
In other words, when Missy is finally cloned, it's unlikely
that Sperling will have as many years with his new dog as he'd
like. Though he's completely healthy at the moment, "I
don't think I'll live much more than another ten years. The
odds are completely against it," he says. And there are
no guarantees that if a puppy does come it will be perfectly
healthy. Poor 5-year-old Dolly has arthritis. But Sperling will
take what he can get. "He would consider it a triumph just
to see the puppy in his arms," says Hawthorne.
Where his money goes
Since 1996, Sperling has poured $77 million into these four
ANTI-AGING $44 MILLION
DRUG LAW REFORM $13 MILLION
PET CLONING $10 MILLION
SALTWATER AGRICULTURE $10 MILLION
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