For the Love of the Ocean by Michaela Cordes | 18th December, 2015 | Personalities
His passion for the beauty of the sea helped him win the world‘s biggest sailing race, the America’s Cup, twice. After growing his family’s biotechnology company Serono into the biggest in Europe and establishing his new Waypoint Capital investment business, Ernesto Bertarelli faces a new big challenge: saving Chagos, the largest marine reserve on earth. The remarkable Swiss entrepreneur talks about childhood memories, his family foundation and why he believes that facts and data are required to create change.
Ernesto Bertarelli’s career sounds like that of a superhero. He was only 27 when he returned home in 1993 after graduating from Harvard to join the family company Serono. He became its CEO in 1996 at only 31, refocusing on biotechnology. Within the next 10 years, Serono’s revenues skyrocketed from 809 million dollars in 1996 to 2.8 billion in 2006.
Mr. Bertarelli, what does being at sea mean to you? My love of the ocean was basically in me when I was born. I was raised on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and moved from Italy to Switzerland when I was seven. My father was a sailor and competed in sailing. He skippered boats for wealthier people when he was a young man and not yet running his father’s business. I was introduced to the sea very early on when I was one year old. My mother liked to remind my father of the day he turned the corner of the island of Giglio and a strong wind put our boat down on its side. For a moment she thought they had lost me and searched the boat, screaming my name, only to find me holding on to the roof of our boat. When I was a teenager my dad gave me a boat instead of a moped. It was a small, inflatable three-meter-long dinghy with a small engine. Fortunately, the guy who sold it to us made a mistake and swapped the cover of what was supposed to be a 7.5 horsepower engine with one that had more than double the power. I was proud of my super-fast boat and zoomed off out of sight of my parents to go swimming. That meant freedom to me. My dad was also the one who taught me how to sail and sponsored me very early on.
“As a teenager my father gave me a boat instead of a moped. A love for the sea has been basically in me since I was born.” Ernesto Bertarelli
Did the sailing sport teach you qualities that helped you later build Serono into an even bigger success? I think it did. You learn about responsibility from an early age, because you always need to see the bigger picture: for example, do I have enough gas to make it back to shore? Also, you cannot just leave a boat in the sea – you have to care for it. It was an exceptionally smart move for my father to give me that boat. He always nurtured my passion for the sea. To make sure I would not run off again when I came back from Harvard, he gave me a seat on the board and a boat on the lake. At the time I was much more interested in cars and buildings, in more concrete things. I wanted to be an architect, or a car designer, but my father would not give up his hope and his vision. Thank God! Because as I matured I started to understand that the pharma and biotech business is so much more fascinating. Luckily, as I grew up I understood my father’s stubbornness in hoping I would follow in his footsteps and eventually run the business that had been in the family since my grandfather’s day. I only wish I had had more time to enjoy adult conversations with my father, but he sadly passed away when he was 68 and I needed to rush to take over the company in my late twenties. But I feel exceptionally fortunate to have been educated and put in a situation to understand the opportunity of change. That’s why I enjoy my involvement with our foundation, because our aim is to encourage change.
When did you realize, personally, that our oceans are in crisis? I had my very first encounter with the pollution of the sea when I was only three years old, cruising around Ponza. I remember I came off the beach with a lot of tar on my skin that I could hardly rub off. At the time the big tankers were going into Naples, and washing their tanks off the coast off Ponza. Today, cruising with my wife and our three children, I realize how very drastically places change. We probably own the most traveled yacht in history, having done several trips around the world. Just last week I came back from the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. We visited Indonesia. We have been exposed to incredible places, but at the same time you realize two years later you do not come back to the same place. Last year, I visited Australia. The Australians are doing a fantastic job preserving the Great Barrier Reef and controlling overfishing. The Maldives have changed a lot as well. I remember you would go fishing a few years back and the fish were so plentiful, you never came back without a catch. I was there recently for several weeks and came back with nothing.
They say the deep ocean has been explored less than the universe – how can one raise awareness for something still so unknown? That is like saying the planet is round. I am going to give you a more basic comparison. On a daily basis we go to the restaurant and order sushi like tuna, or Chilean sea bass, oblivious to the fact that we are eating a wild animal. But that’s a big deal! Whereas we only eat game on rare occasions. In Switzerland we celebrate “la chasse” (the hunt) and serve venison only once or twice in the winter. We humans feel so much closer to animals on land. They give us a fuzzy feeling because they have fur and they look endearing. We give teddy bears to children to cuddle with. Seldom do you get to play with a fish. Humans do not relate to marine life on that level. That is a massive disadvantage for the ocean. And that’s what I am interested in – growing compassion for the ocean and its animals. Because I have been in contact with the ocean from an early age, I feel as much love for a tuna, a dolphin or a shark as I feel for a gazelle, a lion or a bear. But I think I am in the minority and this is what needs to change.
How do you want to grow that awareness? By bringing facts and data to the surface. The largest project we are sponsoring today is the Chagos Archipelago, which was introduced to me and my wife by our dear friend George Duffield, who had done some initial work in the creation of a maritime reserve. I believe it has a lot of potential as a good baseline for research in the Indian Ocean, which is the most vulnerable of all seas because there are two billion people living on its shores. We count sharks, as the number of sharks is a good indicator of the health status of a marine ecosystem. We study the coral, its migration, how it responds to currents. And we study the behavior of animals and birds – all so that my kids and future generations will understand what an unspoilt island looks like.
What are you doing to communicate your discoveries? I think other people are more suited to promoting change in a more vocal way. What Leonardo DiCaprio is doing is very good. He is also in a better position to do it than I am. I like privacy and don’t want to be in the limelight unless I have to be. But we publish our work and partner with other organizations and universities. It is my background. I believe that science and the communication of scientific results is a fantastic way to enhance understanding, and that is our network more than any other network. We use technology for tagging animals, and drones and satellites which help us to understand what is going on in the oceans. That’s how we contribute. We hope that other institutions or organizations will pick up and use politically whatever technological solutions become available to enhance and sponsor new behaviors. You cannot do everything, but you can do a piece of it.
The Bertarelli foundation is a true family business. Your mother Maria Iris, your sister Dona and your wife Kirsty are all involved. Did you form it in memory of your father? Yes, the initial foundation was established after my father passed away. It was founded to honor his work, particularly that in reproductive research, which brought the ability to have children to so many couples. We realized over time how many lives we had changed by providing infertility treatment, and the original foundation was centered there. So, we continue to sponsor research in the life sciences arena and this is an area that interests us greatly, alongside marine conservation. The Foundation has a number of major partnerships with universities around the world, including Harvard Medical School, and EPFL in Switzerland, and we recently established our own neuroscience research hub in Geneva called Campus Biotech which will host the EU’s 1 billion euro Human Brain Project. Alongside institutions such as CERN, I hope this will keep Switzerland in the vanguard of cutting-edge science and keep it a home for entrepreneurs working to transfer these innovations into products that improve lives all over the world. MC