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Checking in with John Sculley decades after Apple

The man best known for one of the most high-profile firings in tech history has turned his attention to your health.

Former Apple CEO John Sculley

Former Apple CEO John Sculley has moved beyond that period of his life and continues to look forward.

John Sculley

John Sculley, the former PepsiCo CEO who was famously lured to Silicon Valley to run Apple, is probably best known as the man who fired Steve Jobs. But now he's looking to make a new mark.

These days, Sculley mentors entrepreneurs and funds startups working on "noble causes," a phrase he first heard applied to business by Jobs and Bill Gates in the 1980s.

"They didn't always agree on many things, but they certainly agreed on this," Sculley said in an interview in October. "They wanted to change the world one person at a time, creating tools for the mind, which were really productivity tools, and that was their noble cause."

That thinking has led Sculley, now 77, to become fascinated with the transformational potential of nascent areas like artificial intelligence, especially when applied to big data.

A handful of startups he invests in employ technologies like machine learning, and he talks at length about the ideas of his friend Ray Kurzweil, who promotes the idea of artificial and biological intelligence merging in the coming decades.

"But that's way beyond what I work on," he said. "I'm much more focused on what can we actually do today."

The cause that most animates Sculley these days is making 120 the new 80 by defeating disease and knocking aging itself down a peg or two.

He and others he's worked with, like DARPA's Geoff Ling (Sculley served as a DARPA adviser) see a future in which today's children -- those already born -- have a good chance of living to age 125. Long before that, he sees cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and dementia, among other disorders. He also believes the revolution in regenerative and precision medicine will arrive alongside vast improvements on the far less sexy side of things, namely the systems that deliver that care to patients.

Sculley isn't just jumping on the health and fitness bandwagon now. He co-founded fitness tracker maker Misfit (the name is an homage to Apple's 1997 "Think Different" ad campaign) and invested in benefit management platform Rally Health. Those companies were acquired by Fossil and UnitedHealthCare, respectively. He's currently involved with startups that apply technology to inefficiencies in how we get our prescriptions (RXAdvance) and to better remote care for patients with chronic conditions (MDLive).

And he's partnering with other heavy hitters from tech to build these companies up, like Uber core adviser Oscar Salazar, who's also on the RXAdvance board.

"His ability to take complexity and turn it into executable simplicity -- what John refers to as 'zooming in' -- was critical," MDLive founder Randy Parker said of Sculley's role as a founding investor. "He wants to get stuff done."

Expect an announcement soon about Sculley's latest venture, with X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, Segway inventor Dean Kamen and others. The company, called Celularity, claims to be the largest company in the world working with placenta blood cord stem cells as a way of regenerating damaged and/or aged tissues.

"The ability to take tissues that may have aged in the body and be able to regenerate those tissues -- that has significant implications for not only people who have an organ that would normally have to be replaced, but to be able to also think about it in terms of life extension," Sculley said.

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Sculley works from his Florida home, or what he calls a "family office," with his wife, Diane, a computer scientist and mathematician. He continues to collaborate with his brothers Arthur, former head of J.P. Morgan's private bank, and David, former CEO of Heinz.

He's also working with Ravi Ika, founder of RXAdvance. Besides lending the company his marketing know-how, Sculley helped Ika identify RXAdvance's ultimate aim: saving consumers $350 billion in avoidable medical and pharmacy costs. Ika says achieving just half those cost savings would be enough to cover all uninsured Americans.

Sculley thinks medicine will find a cure for cancer in the next decade or so, which will then free up resources to devote to late onset brain conditions like dementia, Alzheimer's and other diseases. He's a founding investor and mentor to biotech startup Flex Pharma, which is exploring possible drugs for ALS and MS.

"The big issue is cost and scale of how we deal with people who live longer," he said. "The good news is that the possibility of regenerating organs, finding ways that blind people can see and deaf people can hear -- all of those types of problems will be increasingly solvable."

With Apple nearly 25 years behind him, Sculley says there's no better time than the present. Except, of course, for tomorrow.

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