When their granddaughter was born with Down syndrome, Anna and John Sie became keenly aware of a lack of resources for her as well as others around the globe with her condition. They decided to take action, establishing research facilities at Children’s Hospital Colorado through the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation.
Opened in late 2010 as part of the Linda Crnic Institute for Down syndrome at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Sie Center combines medical care with speech, physical and other therapies. It also provides up-to-date information and support to primary care doctors and families.
The first American organization committed to eradicating the medical and cognitive challenges associated with Down syndrome—through clinical research and care—the Crnic Institute incorporates local and global partners at its Anschutz Medical Campus headquarters in Aurora. The institute is heavily supported by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF).
ABILITY’s Chet Cooper sat down with John Sie to talk about his expansive career and his ambitious mission.
Chet Cooper: Tell me about your background. You were an engineer originally?
John Sie: In the late 1950s, I got a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s in electrophysics, and finished my coursework for a doctorate degree in electrophysics. Around that time, I was working in defense electronics, and my boss, who had a PhD and MBA at Bell Labs, said, “Gee, we can raise money and start a company.” This was way before venture capital was available. So, for some good reason, I stopped pursuing a PhD and started a company with him called Micro State Electronics. Unfortunately, he passed away, and I became the president and CEO. That company was eventually acquired by Raytheon.
Cooper: Never heard of them… Actually they’re a client of ours. Seems that you’ve had some success without a PhD.
Sie: (laughs) When I came here at age 14 from Taiwan, I went to high school in the Denver area. Compared to the other Chinese students who were coming here from Taiwan, I spoke English very well. The reason I did not complete my PhD studies was because, although they all had their PhDs, they were all complaining that they couldn’t get into supervisory-level management.
Cooper: Were they overqualified, or was their education not quite comparable to what they were teaching over here?
Sie: No, I think there was a glass ceiling at that time for an Asian with an advanced degree. “You can’t be a manager” was the general complaint. When I was growing up in China, people were pretty entrepreneurial. In Southeast Asia, the Chinese controlled commerce.
So in my head I said, “All of my friends have a PhD and yet none of them has any chance of becoming a businessperson.” So I took up my boss’s challenge and went to start a business. The rest is history.
Cooper: Your next venture hit pretty big.
Sie: I continued to create entrepreneurial companies, and the last one I started before I retired was the Starz-Encore movie channels.
Cooper: You’ve since sold those and retired?
Sie: Yes. I’ve been retired since 2004.
Cooper: And the next chapter of your life was the beginning of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. (GDSF)
Sie: At the Linda Crnic Institute, yes. My granddaughter, Sophia, was born with Down syndrome, so that gave us a natural segue into what we do now, which is to try to improve life for those with Down syndrome. It is a rewarding place to direct my energy.
Cooper: It’s surprising that a clinic like this didn’t already exist, given that a gap between quality-of-life issues and health issues has always existed for people with Down syndrome.
Sie: There’s always a body of accelerating knowledge in bioscience and biotechnology, but someone has to come in and direct focus onto a specific condition or disease. That didn’t happen with Down syndrome until we started the foundation.
Cooper: You were, in part, motivated by your granddaughter to make the world a better place.
Sie: That’s correct. And it’s so exciting that within my lifetime—by 2017, we project—we will find a solution that eradicates the medical and cognitive deficits associated with Down syndrome. So we’re not just working around the edges to improve things; we’re getting down to the fundamental science at both the prenatal and postnatal levels and making changes. That’s a daunting, audacious and yet achievable objective.
Cooper: Your goalpost is 2017?
Sie: Yes. I put that deadline on Dr. Edward McCabe and the rest of the scientific community.
Cooper: I saw the lab being built. It’s an amazing, 10,000-square-foot facility. My undergraduate degree was in biology, so just going into that lab brought back some great memories. And I love goals with a deadline.
Sie: In business, you need to set milestone goals, and also, in the negotiation for the Linda Crnic Institute, we insisted on the hard availability of real estate. That may not seem so important, but in the long term, space will become very important. Everybody demands space, and if you don’t have a solid contract for it, you may not get what you need.
Did you go to Children’s Hospital Colorado? We have space there also.
Cooper: Yes. You’ve set the foundation to do great things. That makes me think of Shafallah Center in Qatar.
Sie: I haven’t heard of it.
Cooper: It’s a center for children with disabilities. Down syndrome is a part of its focus. At the queen’s behest, the center hires the best people and puts a lot of money into research. Your team should consider getting to know the people over there.
Sie: That sounds impressive.
Cooper: I met some Israeli scientists at a conference there. They’re conducting chaos-theory research to train children with cerebral palsy to walk with a more balanced gait.
Sie: It would be nice to connect with them and get the results of their findings. Thank you. I think a country is really defined by how well it helps the people who can least help themselves. Everywhere we go, we find support and encouragement, so I think our work is on the right track.
Cooper: Our nonprofit is a non-governmental organization to the United Nations (UN). The problem we see there is that a lot of the countries sign and ratify a treaty but stop short of funding it, so it goes nowhere. It looks good for politicians to sign off on these things, but those treaties are useless if they have insufficient backing.
Sie: I certainly see the connection there. I’m friends with Ted Turner, who funded the UN Foundation with Tim Wirth, a former senator from Colorado.
Cooper: You’ve bridged so many worlds, John, but your start was in entrepreneurial business and engineering, and then you ended up focusing more on the electrical and digital world.
Sie: Basically, I ran the gamut. First I was involved in technology and advanced research for defense efforts. I was involved in hardware and aerospace before moving into communications. In ’72, I was trying to start another company in a down cycle, so I couldn’t raise funds. At that point, Raytheon moved our company to Boston, and I started to become intrigued with cable television.
Around that time, I read a book by Ralph Lee Smith called The Wired Nation. It discussed how you could shop at home, bank at home, do medicine at home—all sorts of futuristic things. I knew a vice president at International Telephone and Telegraph, and he said, “If you’re interested in cable, you’ve got to go to Philadelphia and meet John Malone.” John was head of Jerrold Electronics at the time, a division of General Instruments. He’s now the head of Liberty Media.
I met with John and we hit it off. He wanted me to start a two-way interactive cable division for Jerrold Electronics. Jerrold was the largest supplier to the cable industry, but it didn’t have two-way; it just had one-way. There were two upstarts—one from Hughes Aircraft and the other from RCA.
Those two companies were moving ahead, and Jerrold, which was the largest, didn’t have any two-way. So I was brought in. At that point, cable was considered low-life and schlocky, compared to the respect aerospace had.
I went over to Jerrold and created a two-way interactive system that put it on the map. After working on the hardware side, I decided to move into content. I was one of the early founders of the Showtime Networks (in New York), and started another premium channel up against the monolithic HBO. The thinking, at the time, was that viewers felt that they only needed HBO, so it seemed that the way to grow was by knocking HBO out altogether. But I figured if I could get movies that HBO didn’t have, we could justify the existence of two premium channels. When I negotiated with Paramount and several other major studios for an exclusive deal, it was a big risk.
In the end, we created the first “two-pay” plan, allowing people to get HBO and Showtime and enjoy movies that they couldn’t get from HBO alone. We created Showtime and brought it to the number-two position in 1984.
At the time, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) was the largest cable company and John Malone was the head of it. John said to me in 1984, “Why don’t you come out to Denver and make some real money?” So I took a 50 percent pay cut and came out to Denver.
Cooper: 50 percent cut to make real money.
Sie: (laughs) Right. So I went from Jerrold into Showtime and then into operations at TCI, which runs cable systems. As you may know, TCI was sold to AT&T, and then AT&T sold it to Comcast, which is now the largest cable operator in the United States.
I started Encore in 1991 with TCI’s backing. Very simply, Encore showcases hit movies of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. People love those movies. So from there, the next step was to create Starz, which directly competes with recent Hollywood hits. I created a billion-dollar company and retired in 2004, as I’d mentioned, to work on Down syndrome and other things.
Cooper: What other things do you spend your time on now?
Sie: At the University of Denver, we recently created the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. It’s named in honor of my father, who was the ambassador to the Vatican from Nationalist China. The People’s Republic of China does not have any relations with the Vatican, but Taiwan does.
Cooper: China has invited me to come look at how it’s dealing with the UN’s Convention on Human Rights for People with Disabilities, and the accessibility of the infrastructure of the country.
Sie: My daughter, Michelle, by the way, was running our Encore International Beijing office for 10 years. During that time we were the very first Western company to put programming on closed-circuit television (CCTV). In exchange, we brought CCTV programs here to a channel we call International Channel, which we started. The sense of reciprocity we created has allowed us to establish a very good relationship with China. People are rising through the ranks, continuing the work that Michelle was involved in.
Cooper: Just before we came out here, we met with the Public Broadcasting System to produce television around the subjects that we cover in ABILITY Magazine. We’d like to work out some kind of exchange with them.
Sie: Reciprocity is a great feeling. Now our primary focus is the Linda Crnic Institute, where we’ve committed about $22 million in annual funding. With the Global Down Syndrome Foundation fund-raiser, we try to net $1 million a year, plus the state’s commitment and the university’s commitment. These efforts are helping us grow into a first-class operation.
Cooper: I hear the GDSF is pushing the National Institutes of Health to get more funding for Down syndrome.
Sie: Well, there’s a difference between being in-your-face and working behind the scenes. My approach is somewhere in between. I think Michelle’s more direct than I am, and I think maybe we could achieve the same goals more quietly. Down syndrome is the least funded per capita of any chromosomal disorder or disease—3 times less than autism, 10 times less than Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of work to do.
We like to work on all angles, all the touch points, to increase funding. I think it will happen, but we’re talking about a major change from $20 million a year to at least $60 million a year. A threefold increase is our goal.
Cooper: In tough economic times.
Sie: It’s all about allocation. We still have a $30 billion budget, but we’re using “therapeutic leverage.” That’s a term that we coined.
Cooper: I like it.
Sie: People with Down syndrome have a high incidence of many diseases, like leukemia or early-onset Alzheimer’s, but they also have a low incidence of heart cancer. People with Down syndrome are a perfect population to study to learn about and benefit other diseases. If you can find the genotype-phenotype mapping, you can identify the specific genes of the cognitive deficit.
We’re lucky that chromosome 21 has the lowest number of genes of all chromosomes—only about 300 to 500. So, with progress in bioscience, gene therapy can be created. By the same token, once we have the answers needed for the eradication of the medical and cognitive deficits, we can use the same methodology, maybe, towards curing cancer. So there’s a lot of advantages to Down syndrome study and research, beyond that which will benefit Down syndrome itself. It creates a perfect universe for therapeutic leverage, and that’s what we intend to do.
Photos by Nancy Villere – CrushPhotoStudios.com