The Immigrant With The Midas Touch
May 29th, 2009
Dr. Dinesh Patel is one of the most successful Indian immigrants to Utah. In the business of biotechnology, this entrepreneur made his fortune while maintaining a calm, stress-free lifestyle
by Anand Rao
"When we think of honoring individuals today, we often think of those who seem to catch the glimmer of media. What an honor it is to be able to honor a man who seeks no honor." Lane Beattie, the President and CEO of Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce choked and teared up while announcing this year's Utah Genius Lifetime achievement award.
The recipient Dr. Dinesh Patel at 57 years has more accomplishments than the productive lifetimes of most individuals. Called the father of Biotechnology in the American mountain west. Dr Patel is a role model for 21st century entrepreneurs: combining scientific knowledge with business acumen to improve society.
A Bachelor's Degree from Gujarat, India and a Doctorate Degree from University of Michigan, Dr. Patel is Managing Director of vSpring Capital, a highly successful Venture Capital Firm based in Salt Lake City. His list of awards and recognitions is awe-inspiring.
Awards and Recognitions
Dr. Patel was awarded a position in the Utah Technology Hall of Fame in 2006, Pathfinder award - Edison Showcase University of Utah in 2006, 2006 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Award, US Small Business Administration's Business Achiever Award, Scientific and Technology Award (State of Utah), Entrepreneur of the year award (Mountain West Venture Group), Scientific and Technology Development Pioneer of Progress Award, Honorary Doctorate of Business Degree, University of Utah, 2008 and the most recent 2009 Utah Genius Lifetime achievement award.
When Chhotubhai Patel moved his family from Gujarat in India to Zambia in Africa to take up the job of a school teacher, little did he know that his three sons would one day fulfill his dream of building a hospital in his hometown of Mota Fofalia. Interestingly for Dr. Patel, who is credited with outstanding achievements in science and service, fulfilling his father's dream happens to be his greatest single achievement. That alone speaks volumes of the value Dr. Patel has attached to community service.
Consider these facts: Dr. Patel has founded or co-founded several life science and technology companies that have created numerous life-saving products including TheraTech Inc. that started with an investment of $40,000 and eventually sold for $350 million.
He has served as the co-chair of Governor Huntsman's transition team and is currently on the board of Utah Policy Partnership, the board of Utah Symphony and Opera, the Chairman of the USTAR governing authority board and is on the Utah Technology Council executive committee. Everything combined; the inventions of Dr. Patel and his organizations have crossed 500 million dollars in their worth financially and beyond any imaginable number in their value to humankind. His penchant for giving, led to a generous allocation of shares for many individuals, creating about a dozen millionaires and multi-millionaires.
Dr. Patel chatted with Anand Rao of Utah Stories on various facets of his life and illustrious career.
On Being an Immigrant and Minority in Utah
"I decided to move to Utah because my professor at the university offered a job at an upcoming organization. I came here and decided not to take up the job but start my own business. I had no idea who Mormons were and it never bothered me. I am Hindu, so what if there were Mormons. Be it Baptists or Mormons in either case I am minority. I worried about neither race nor color. I believed only in competing on ability. My business partners were Korean American and Japanese American. I never considered myself disadvantaged at any point. If you do a good job, you just go through all the barriers. I know some people do find religion as an issue. The people I moved around with had no issues of that nature. Now, I have more connections with senior level people in the LDS church than some of my Mormon partners."
"On the FDA side, we didn't encounter any difficulty because FDA is quite familiar with Indian businesses. The biggest issue we faced was with networking. We just didn't know anybody here. They will have to get familiar and have confidence in you. If you are a graduate from Harvard or any such school that has a network of business professionals working everywhere then it becomes easy to reach out to classmates but we had none of that."
On Becoming a Venture Capitalist
"After selling the highly successful TheraTech, we set out to help out small companies. I would meet many people who needed help in starting their business so we started putting in small amounts of start-up capital. A fifty thousand here, a hundred thousand there began adding up. Companies started doing very well. Utah at that point had very little venture capital money, so we knew there was a need. That's when my partner Ed Ekstrom and I decided to start a venture capital organization."
On the Current Economic Situation
"If you look at the history of recessionary periods, those are the times when the best companies are formed. In boom time it's easy to raise money. Only good companies can raise investor money when times are bad. Eventually you will have strong and good companies emerge out of the recession. Investors are always looking at investment opportunities. There are plenty of them out there. It becomes difficult to sell the company and return the money for reinvestments. Large pension funds, Endowment funds values are going down and investors are not getting their money back. Historically we started a new fund every 2 to 4 years, now we are looking at 5 to 6 years. Statistics are that about 30% of venture capitalists that were around last year may not be around next year. "
On Community Service
"From the time we were children, we were taught to do community service. My father always told us that service to mankind was greater than service to god. Whatever we did with our lives we had to remember that it should have a positive impact on other's lives. We have a foundation in India that runs a hospital in our hometown and a small clinic in Zambia. When my father went to Africa he had nothing. He worked as a teacher and then created a small business. His service to community was recognized and he soon became influential. Those were the times of racial segregation in Africa; still he was invited to the Mayor's offices for their parties and fundraising. That willingness to serve gave our family a very good position in the society. All our brothers have imbibed those values from my father and are doing very well."
In Utah, Dr. Patel and his wife Kalpana Patel run a foundation that generously donates to various social and cultural activities.
About the Indian Community in Utah
"I remember, in 1992 I was one of the few Indian CEOs of a publicly traded US Company. We are a growing community that's increasingly becoming more and more influential. Anytime you want to make an impact or change something, you got to be a part of the system. You can't make things work from the outside. 15 to 20 years ago, most Indians who came to US were struggling to make it. They had to support families back home and needed help to survive. Now, you will see them take an active role in politics and community because they can afford to do those things. It's not that we have all of a sudden become philanthropic. We as a community have changed and our position has grown stronger. We can now look beyond our immediate needs."
"I have been in India only for 4 years. So I can say that I am a foreigner to India but I am very proud of my roots and heritage. Our heritage is so rich, why do I need to give it up. I can add to it without having to give it up. We make it a point to teach our children Gujarati, which is our native language. It's sad that many people after coming to US change completely and give up on their culture. I will be a brown-skinned Indian no matter what. Our culture is so rich we got to show it without being ashamed of it. There is no need to apologize for being who you are. I try to visit India once a year. We did it regularly especially when kids were younger because we had to make sure that they didn't lose touch with their roots."
On Future Plans
"I certainly want to see vSpring grow. I am now spending a lot of time with USTAR. I'm trying to bring top faculty members into the University and creating jobs. The program will change the state positively. I have absolutely no political ambitions. I am well connected but I am not interested running for any office. My philanthropy work will be ongoing."
On Personal Work Discipline
"I never worry too much about my work. I don't take work home. I do answer emails or take calls but generally I don't get too wound up about things I have no control over. I believe in things that I can control and I influence it to the maximum. Even if there is a major crisis at work, I don't let my family know about it. They say you got to share your worries but my belief is that by sharing you double the burden and two people end up worrying about the same thing instead of one person. I used to ski regularly earlier but I damaged my knee and I now play golf."
On what would he like to change about his life
"In reality, it's been such a ride. Any adversities whatsoever have only been learning experiences. There has never been a blunder that made a major difference. If given a chance, I will do everything I did all over again."
Dr Patel still has a lifetime ahead of him to repeat his inspiring act. There is a whole new world out there still waiting for his magic touch. Like it's said in his native Gujarati, "havae tamae shu karsho?" (What will you do next?)
More Utah Immigrant Success Stories
Very inspiring, well articulated story.
@Dinesh, What an inspiration you are for so many of us! Wishing you good luck with all your future endeavors.