Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapies and former CEO of SiriusXM, is the highest paid CEO in the country. Rothblatt founded UT after her daughter was diagnosed with a rare lung disease. She is also transgender and married to the same woman for 32 years (File Contributed/Andre Chung)

University of Victoria presents honorary degree to tech, medicine and AI mastermind

UVic’s Chair of Transgender Studies nominated Martine Rothblatt for an honorary law degree

A woman recently listed as one of the world’s most brilliant innovators, alongside Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, as well as one of Forbes Magazine’s 100 greatest business minds, will soon be getting an honourary law degree from the University of Victoria.

Martine Rothblatt has done no less than found SiriusXM, discover a cure for a rare lung disease, found a company researching regenerative organ medicine, invent the first electrical helicopter and make ground-breaking discoveries into the world of artificial intelligence.

Rothblatt is also a transgender person, and has written – among more than 60 book chapters and journal articles and six books – literature on the understanding of sex, gender and humanity in books like From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form (2011) and The Apartheid of Sex (1995).

ALSO READ: UVic Chair in Transgender Studies announces 2019 Scholars and Fellows

All of these accomplishments prompted University of Victoria Chair of Transgender Studies, Aaron Devor, to nominate Rothblatt for an honourary degree.

“She’s done amazing things and benefited the lives of thousands of people,” Devor said. “If the work she’s doing now is as successful as it was in the past, she will change lives of millions of people, and maybe even how we look at life and death.”

Rothblatt began her career in the 1980s in satellite navigation, becoming the CEO of GPS-based satellite navigation company, GEOstar. During her time there she revolutionized satellite technology, strengthening audio signals and changing satellite design. In 1990, she used these changes to create Sirius Satellite Radio, now SiriusXM, and served as the company’s first CEO and chairwoman.

ALSO READ: Vancouver Island’s ‘Penny Girl’ comes out as transgender, hopes to inspire others

In 1996, Rothbatt’s then eight-year-old daughter, Jenesis, was diagnosed with a fatal lung disease which had no treatment available. So, Rothblatt began studying biology and received a PhD in Medical Ethics from the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, after which she founded a biotech company called United Therapeutics (UT). UT purchased an orphan drug that held a possibility of treating the disease; after researching and developing the drug, Rothblatt was able to save her daughter’s life, and also made the drug available to the wider population at minimal cost, or free if patients can’t afford it.

This research sparked an interest in regenerative medicine, so UT is now researching regenerative organs. It is presently working on sequencing the pig genome, with a goal of eventually making pig organs more viable for human transplant. UT has also created a new way to refurbish lungs from human donors which would otherwise have been thrown out because of their poor condition, and is also manufacturing a 3D printer which is able to print out important lung structures.

In order to get time-sensitive organs to recipients as quickly as possible, Rothblatt built the first fully-electric helicopter in 2017.

Rothblatt is also extremely interested in artificial intelligence (AI), and created the Terasem Movement Foundation to help upload people’s memories into computer technology for the use in future “mind clones.” She has crafted a robotic replica of her wife, Bina Rothblatt, titled BINA48 as a “proof of concept” of the idea. BINA48 is able to converse with people and learn, while mimicking the the personality traits of its namesake.

ALSO READ: Researchers look to artificial intelligence programs to predict wildfires

Despite her astounding resumé, Devor said that in the two times he’s met her in person, she’s been nothing but humble.

“She’s a lovely person, very easy going, kind and congenial,” he said. “Her record is astounding, but in person she puts you at ease.”

Having someone as iconic as Rothblatt be part of the transgender community, and sharing her story, is vital.

“What we don’t see much information on is how trans people have benefited the rest of the world and society,” Devor said. “We see a lot of conversations of what society can do to help trans people, but not much about what trans people have done to help society, and Martine is an outstanding example. I think it’s important to get those stories out.”

ALSO READ: Two Canadian artificial intelligence pioneers nab tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

On Nov. 13, Rothblatt will receive her honourary degree from UVic, and on Nov. 14 Devor will host a fireside chat with Rothblatt in the David Lam Auditorium for all to attend at UVic at 3800 Finnerty Rd.

Devor hopes to ask Rothblatt about her career and future goals.

“I very much want to talk about her vision of the future, and where she thinks society is going and how she’s contributing to the society she’d like to see,” Devor said.

Also on his query list: why Rothblatt chose to be Canadian (she is American-born, but now is a dual-citizen in Canada and the United States).

The Nov. 14 event will begin at 7:30 p.m. and tickets will be for sale at the door by donation.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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