Kara Swisher

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The Fight for Mike

Last night, in an extraordinary gathering in Silicon Valley, friends and colleagues of Mike Homer came together to learn about his severe illness–the longtime tech veteran was recently diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.


In an event organized by Homer and his wife, Kristina, as well as close friends and well-known industry players Bill Campbell and Ron Conway, several hundred people crowded into the Palo Alto Sheraton to get a primer course about CJD from doctors at the University of California at San Francisco. (See video below.)

These doctors also happen to be the leading specialists in the world trying to find treatments and a cure for the cruel disease and include the man–Dr. Stanley Prusiner–who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for discovering “prions,” infectious agents that are at the heart of CJD.

A rare, neurodegenerative prion disease, which in Homer’s case has occurred sporadically rather than via infection (the well-known variant that occurs in animals is called mad cow disease), CJD’s incidence is one case in a million annually, and few survive beyond a year after exhibiting symptoms.

Homer had been suffering from memory problems late last year. Another close friend, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, aided Homer in getting to the right doctors at Stanford University Hospital, where he was diagnosed.

Quickly, via Conway, who serves on the board of the UCSF Medical Foundation, Homer’s case was moved to UCSF, where he is benefitting from the latest research and medications. The hospital is the only place in this country that has a major laboratory doing both research and clinical trials.

The problem is that, right now, there is no known cure for CJD, and treatments have been few. That might change, given the push that Homer, his family and his friends are making to accelerate the pace of discovery for treatments and a cure, by raising money for the cause and pushing for even more aggressive development.

Besides Prusiner, who is consulting on Homer’s case, Drs. Bruce Miller and Michael Geschwind–who are working on a major study about the impact of a promising drug treatment using quinacrine–are also treating him, along with many others at UCSF.

Many were in attendance last night, along with a range of friends, family and scores of people who have worked with Homer over his long years in the tech industry.

The atmosphere was, rather than depressed over the tragic turn of events, very energetic about making quick breakthroughs, at least related to treatments that could slow the progress of Homer’s illness, until a cure can be found.

Homer himself, who struggles with speech and movement, was also in fine form, greeting well-wishers with a laugh and sassy attitude, especially given the dire situation.

Such fighting spirit is typical of Homer, whom I met when I was doing my first book on the rise of America Online more than a decade ago, when he was an executive at the then-high-flying Netscape.

He had also, like many, put in time at Apple and was known throughout the industry for his hard-charging and straightforward style. He needed it in the later days of Netscape, when he arduously tried to shift the company’s focus from a browser-software business besieged by Microsoft to a portal business.

Despite his sometimes tough demeanor, Homer was always willing–unlike so many others–to debate his business in an all-out-on-the-table manner I found refreshing compared to the sometimes earnest and smooth spin of most dot-com entrepreneurs.

Most of all, even when you disagreed over an issue, he always left such arguments at work and was ready with his quick laugh or a razor-sharp quip no matter what.

Recently, before his illness, Homer had been investing in and mentoring a series of start-ups. But he had also been focusing a lot on philanthropy and, most of all, his family and, especially, his three small children.

He talked a lot last night about wanting to be around for his kids. So to make that happen, Homer and others made the first step last night, which was designed to spur the efforts via fundraising and sharp focus on beating CJD.

For those who want to help, there are several ways, including via donation to the Homer Family Foundation’s Program for Brain Disease Research (P.O. Box 10195, Palo Alto, Calif. 94303); the Homer Family Fund for Brain Research at the Harris myCFO Foundation (P.O. Box 10196, Palo Alto, Calif. 94303); or the UCSF Foundation, specifically to the “Fight for Mike Fund” or generally for neurodegenerative disease research and treatment.

Here is a video of the event last night, with some messages from friends of Homer’s, who needs all the good wishes he can get right now:

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle