Photo of Maurice Kanbar on his motorcycle
Photo of Maurice Kanbar

Driven by ideas: inventor-philanthropist Maurice Kanbar honored by AFMDA

You can’t walk through Maurice Kanbar’s elegant Pacific Heights apartment without tripping over one of his trippy inventions.

A T-shaped mashup of a walking stick and a roller skate — he calls it the “rolling cane” — rests against the sofa. It’s a cane, only better.

A container on the coffee table holds samples of owlish plastic eyeglasses, Kanbar’s 85-cent solution for fighting common vision problems in the Third World. That same tabletop is decked with a MoGee, the circus-colored motorized-gear toy he dreamed up (think battery-operated Legos that spin and whirr).

Maurice Kanbar demonstrates a few of his inventions: a hand-held quick eye exam device

One side table is topped with a miniature Torah scroll, though not a proper kosher one — it was printed, not hand-scribed. No worries. Though not his invention, the scroll got the Kanbar treatment when he made the decidedly 21st-century parchment look antique by giving it a coffee bath.

And then there are the vodka bottles scattered about.

Normally, an apartment littered with empty vodka bottles might raise alarms. Not at chez Kanbar. The creator of Skyy Vodka and Blue Angel Vodka displays the bottles perhaps as a reminder of his success in the spirits business. More likely, he keeps them around to ponder ways to improve the product.

Kanbar, who holds more than 50 patents, never encountered anything he felt could not be made better.

American Friends of Magen David Adom, which supports Israel’s blood bank and disaster relief organization, will honor Kanbar with a lifetime achievement award at an Aug. 30 gala in San Francisco.

It’s AFMDA’s way of thanking Kanbar, who made a multimillion-dollar gift to Magen David Adom’s planned $100 million national blood center in Israel.

With his major gifts to the JCC of San Francisco and the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael (both have auditoriums named for him), Kanbar is one of the Bay Area’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists. He also has given significant donations to Bar-Ilan University and Haifa University in Israel.

Why give to Magen David Adom?

“They do a lot of good,” Kanbar says. “If an Arab Muslim is wounded they will help him. [MDA] doesn’t say we’re just going to help Jews. Why? Because we’re civilized.”

Erik Levis, AFMDA’s acting Western region director, got to know Kanbar as he persuaded the inventor and entrepreneur to turn his philanthropic eye on the new blood center.

“We were very fortunate that Maurice was receptive to what we have to say,” Levis says. “He loves to think big. He likes to tackle global problems even while he comes up with a solution to put out a cigarette. He’s a fascinating guy.”

Levis’ reference was to Kanbar’s Cig-Saver, a portable foil device that allows a smoker to neatly and temporarily snuff out a cigarette mid-smoke, saving the rest for later. He came up with the idea while attending a party at the Cannes Film Festival, where he discovered that a pack of cigarettes cost a whopping 14 euros, more than $15.

Not the most politically correct invention in this “thank you for not smoking” world, but Kanbar is old school.

Though he won’t reveal his age, Kanbar is from the Sinatra generation, coiled and compact like James Cagney or Joe Pesci. He speaks his mind, he does not suffer fools, and he tends to pace restlessly. So little time, so much to fix.

“I don’t want to make money,” says the inventor. “I’m looking to do good before I leave this planet.”

In 1890, Maurice Kanbar’s father, Meir, emigrated with his family from Greece to Jerusalem, where Meir met his eventual bride, Hannah. As Jewish emigration to Palestine spurred the Zionist dream, Meir feared peace between Muslims and Jews would never come, so he moved to New York, where he and his wife raised their three sons.

Kanbar grew up in Boro Park, Brooklyn, a Jewish neighborhood then and now. He remembers candles on Friday nights and eight years of attending yeshiva. Mostly he remembers his parents’ fondest wish.

“They wanted me to know I’m Jewish,” he recalls, “and to be very proud of being a Jew. There was a time when Jews liked to ‘pass’ [as non-Jews]. That was not my parents. [The lesson] stuck to this day. If you understand Judaism, you have a great deal to be proud of.”

That leads Kanbar to a digression on Judaism’s contributions to Western civilization, with soliloquies on the origins of Christianity, the King James Bible and the disproportionate number of Nobel laureates who happen to be Jewish.

Maurice Kanbar demonstrates a few of his inventions: the battery-operated gear toy MoGee

Kanbar remembers his first invention. He was 10, and he wanted his mom to buy him a bow-and-arrow set.

“She said, ‘You’re not getting a bow and arrow, forget it,’ ” he recalls. “So I went into the backyard, got a branch, cut it, put a string across, and said, ‘Look, Mommy, I have a bow and arrow.’ ”

His talent for engineering merged with an ability to solve problems and make a buck. While a young teen, he and his best friend Harvey decided to go into business taking photo portraits of neighborhood kids.

At first nobody was interested in paying up front. “I said, ‘Harvey, look, we’ll take pictures of the kids, then show [the parents] the proofs.’ You have to solve the problem.”

Problem solved, indeed. After parents got a look at the proofs, they lined up to buy the photographs. Soon the budding entrepreneur was making $8 a week.

Kanbar went on to earn an engineering degree from Philadelphia University, studying chemistry and physics in the process. That hard science background helped him with his first invention, the D-Fuzz-It, which did not split the atom but did remove lint from sweaters.

It also earned him $200,000 in its first year on the market. Kanbar was 21.

Over the ensuing years, he nurtured dual careers as an inventor-entrepreneur and as a real estate developer. At one point he owned 2.2 million square feet of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But solving problems remained his top priority. To address hazardous needle sticks among health care workers, he created the SafetyGlide hypodermic needle protector.

Another time he was chatting with an ophthalmologist friend who talked about the procedure for removing cataracts.

“He said you take a tube, pour in liquid nitrogen and freeze the lens,” Kanbar says. “I said you’re crazy. You spill a few drops on a man’s face, it’ll burn a hole through it.”

He came up with an evaporating cryogenic gas that froze the lens of the eye without the hazards of liquid nitrogen. It became so widely used, even a presidential candidate knows of it. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an eye doctor by training, recently cornered Kanbar at a fundraiser to tell him he had used the device for years.

Not everything he invented was lifesaving. Some were just plain useful. His Zip Notes are like Post-its, but with a dispenser that allows the user to choose the length. He is also credited with creating the first multiplex theater, New York’s Quad Cinema, converting an old-fashioned Greenwich Village warehouse in 1972. His interest in movies runs deep and includes producing the 2005 animated film “Hoodwinked!” which grossed $100 million.

Eventually the balmier climes of California beckoned, and in 1984 Kanbar moved from New York to San Francisco. Several years later, he bought an eight-story residential Pacific Heights apartment building, which he has called home ever since. He lives on the eighth floor, entertains on the seventh. He is the building’s only occupant, having evicted the other tenants a year after he moved in. As he told the S.F. Chronicle in 2012, “Being a landlord was terrible. I was treated like a janitor.”

Between his real estate deals and royalties on inventions, Kanbar was doing all right. Then, sometime in the late 1980s, along came the 1.5-oz. shot heard round the world.

“I like bourbon and cognac, but I always got a dull headache after drinking them,” Kanbar says. “One time I had a hangover and went to my doctor. He said what were you drinking? I said fine cognac. He said stay away from cognac, just drink vodka.”

That helped, but he still got the occasional post-drink headache. His doctor told him the libation probably had a high “congener” content.

It was an unfamiliar term to Kanbar. He researched the word in the medical library and learned that even the finest distilled alcohols contain impurities, or congeners, which Kanbar calls “chemical junk.”

“We can take any carbohydrate and ferment it to alcohol,” he says. “The alcohol we get is ethyl alcohol. Nature produces 98 percent ethyl and 1 to 2 percent congeners, such as methyl alcohol and propyl alcohol. I thought if anyone would make a dependably pure alcohol, that’s what I would drink.”

Over a period of years, he worked on creating the purest possible vodka by distilling it four times. When it came time to name it, he considered Prince Romanov, after the Russian noble, but then decided this would be an all-American vodka.

“I looked out my window one day at a beautiful blue sky,” Kanbar remembers. “I said there it is: Sky vodka. But Sky was too generic. That’s when I added the second y.”

Though he knew nothing about the liquor business, Kanbar moved fast, packaging Skyy in cobalt blue glass imported from Germany.

Maurice Kanbar demonstrates a few of his inventions: the Cig-Saver, which snuffs out a cigarette for later use.

Launched in 1992, Skyy went through the roof, becoming a best-selling premium brand. Kanbar branched out, creating Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur. He sold Skyy to Campari Group in 2001 for $300 million, according to press accounts.

But he wasn’t done perfecting vodka. Kanbar recently formulated Blue Angel Vodka, an even purer, more finely distilled product, Kanbar says, and the perfect martini spirit. “I sold Skyy, but I’m never satisfied,” he says. “I tweaked it so it’s a bit better.”

The notion of Kanbar retiring is laughable. There’s no way he could power down his idea generator. These days profit is not his prime objective, and in some cases not even of any importance.

Those eyeglasses on the coffee table? They are his solution to vision problems in poverty-stricken areas where optometrists are rare.

He started by creating a hand-held four-lens sampler, a portable eye exam device to determine basic vision weaknesses. From there, it’s easy to pop an unbreakable plastic lens into an unbreakable plastic frame and give it away. Total cost for a pair of glasses: 85 cents.

“I don’t make a penny on this,” he says of the glasses. “I went to [the Bill Gates Foundation] and said for $100,000 you can make 85,000 pair. Go to Africa and India. I said I’m not looking to make a profit. Take it.”

Some of his ideas are too big for him. That’s why he donates to institutions such as the University of Haifa ($1 million last year) and Bar-Ilan University. He’s hoping Israeli researchers will perfect electrical superconductors, which can transport power through the grid with minimal loss of electricity to resistance.

“If they can create that, it will change the world,” he says. “They asked what would you want [for the donation]? I said an invitation when you collect your Nobel Prize in physics.”

As a philanthropist, his name graces many local projects, including the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum, the Kanbar Cardiac Unit at California Pacific Medical Center and Kanbar Hall at the JCC, all in San Francisco.

“Maurice’s philanthropic leadership was crucial to realizing the vision of the JCCSF as San Francisco’s premier center for groundbreaking cultural arts, thought leadership and open dialogue,” says JCC CEO Marci Glazer. “Maurice has not only helped make it possible for nearly 1,000 writers, thinkers and performing artists to appear on the stage of Kanbar Hall, but also for us to launch a new center for excellence in media and technology. Maurice’s gifts have utterly transformed the JCCSF’s role in the community.”

Kanbar has never married and has no children. His work and his philanthropy have given him a measure of satisfaction, but only so much. One senses an almost palpable impatience in the man, eager as he is to tackle some other problem, big or small.

While unfailingly polite, after an hourlong interview Kanbar excuses himself. He must dash off to his next appointment. He walks his visitors out of his apartment, takes the elevator down to the street and straddles his screaming red Argo scooter, which he modified by installing a 150cc Yamaha engine and front-and-rear disc brakes.

Saying his final goodbyes, Kanbar notes reflectively, “I don’t stop thinking. I’m certainly often lonely, but I’m never bored. I keep thinking what else can I do.”

He then dons a helmet and motors off, racing down a steep Pacific Heights street at what appears to be an unsafe speed. A bit startling, perhaps, but Kanbar is hardly known for doing what is expected.


Magen David Adom to build blood center underground

dan pine   |   j. staff

Magen David Adom’s new blood center will be the most expansive capital project that people will never see. Not from the street, at least.

The planned $100 million facility, which will house Israel’s civilian and military blood supply, will be built entirely underground, protecting it from rocket and chemical terror attacks, as well as from natural disasters. The hope is to break ground near centrally located Ben Gurion Airport next year and complete construction within five years.

Conceptual rendering of the new underground and secure MDA National Blood Center. Photo credit: American Friends of Magen David Adom

“There is only one blood center for the entire country,” says Erik Levis, the Los Angeles–based acting Western region director for American Friends of Magen David Adom, “and it’s run exclusively by MDA. People identify us with EMT ambulances and being on the scene of daily emergencies. The second critical piece is we supply the blood for the entire country. We’re the only ones mandated to fill that role.”

AFMDA’s Aug. 30 Red Star Gala in San Francisco will raise funds for the new blood center, as well as honor Lior Tamir, chair of the group’s young leadership initiative, and philanthropist Maurice Kanbar, who made a multimillion-dollar donation to the project.

Levis says it wasn’t hard to sell Kanbar on the new center. “MDA has been around a long time, even before the State of Israel,” he says. “There’s a tradition of excellence. Maurice could associate with that. At the same time, MDA is an innovator. That also spoke to Maurice. He’s a serial inventor and entrepreneur.”

The center will replace MDA’s current street-level facility near Tel Aviv. Levis was there last summer during the Hamas rocket barrage. He saw teams of employees carrying equipment and blood stores by hand down to bomb shelters, underscoring the need for an underground facility.

Tamir, an Israeli-born high-tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, notes that “in a time when we continue to see how unstable the Middle East is and how scary the future might be, this is more important than ever, in terms of how we protect Israel in the long run.”

In addition to those security concerns, MDA had outgrown its current center, given the sharp rise in Israel’s population over the last 30 years. Not to mention the concomitant rise in demand for MDA’s services.

Funded exclusively by donations, most from North America, MDA serves as Israel’s version of the Red Cross. It runs a fleet of 800 ambulances, maintains 123 emergency medical stations and 11 dispatch stations located across Israel, and serves as the national blood center.

In addition, MDA has opened an umbilical cord blood bank, which has many applications in stem cell research. It also trains EMT personnel and volunteers.

Sadly, MDA has gained enormous experience as first responders to terror attacks. That expertise has been exported: MDA sent teams to Haiti in 2010 and Nepal last April when those countries experienced devastating earthquakes.

“MDA didn’t choose to be experts in this part of emergency medicine, but they had to,” notes Levis. “We sent a delegation of 12 doctors and medics to Nepal, created field stations, literally pulling people out of the rubble and helping trapped Israelis. It would be irresponsible for MDA not to respond, given the expertise and knowledge.”

Levis, who lived in Israel for two years, says MDA ambulances speeding off to respond to disasters reminded him of the New York Fire Department and other heroes of 9/11.

“The only people running south toward the [twin towers] were first responders,” he says. “That willingness to jump toward the danger is what I saw in MDA. What MDA stands for is everything that is beautiful about Israel and worth admiring.”

American Friends of Magen David Adom Red Star Gala
, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30 at the Hilton Union Square, 333 O’Farrell St., S.F.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.