Swiss Flights
My life

"It all comes down to trust"

The story of a successful entrepreneur, sportsman, investor and philanthropist: Ernesto Bertarelli talks to us about his love for business, science, sailing, wine-making and his family.

Susanne von Meiss
Erwin Windmüller (portrait)

“Entrepreneurialism runs deep in our family.”

Mr Bertarelli, in May last year the new research and technology centre Campus Biotech was officially inaugurated – by now already some 400 scientists are working on the Sécheron site covering 40,000 square meters. Campus Biotech is expected to develop into a “CERN of brain research”. Could you explain what this analogy alludes to?

In fact, we have already almost 700 people working at Campus Biotech! But to answer your question, I think you have to start with the building itself, which my family built for our company Serono. Architecturally, it was conceived very much as a campus – an open place, designed to encourage collaboration and the meeting of minds. In a business as large as Serono, that was very important. With Campus Biotech, we have a similar ambition. Hansjörg Wyss, our academic partners and I had a vision of creating a new life sciences ecosystem in the Lake Geneva region, mixing and blending institutional and private interests, science and business, established players and start-ups. In fact, this goes further, because within the neuroscience that is taking place at Campus Biotech, there are a huge number of different disciplines coalescing into a greater whole. This is what the CERN analogy alludes to. What they are doing there is similar. It is collaborative; it brings together a vast array of people from different countries, from different professions. What CERN is for particle physics, we hope Campus Biotech will be for neuroscience. The very best in that world, brought together under one roof, in an envir­onment that promotes interaction. We’re all very excited to see what emerges and are immensely proud we’ve been able to attract such a range of talent from all over the world.

700 employees at Campus Biotech and one big shared mission: creating a life sciences ecosystem in the Lake Geneva region where institutional and private interests, science and business coalesce and established players and start-ups can collaborate.

Campus Biotech cooperates with the Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), the University of Geneva and is a beneficiary amongst others of contributions from Hansjörg Wyss’ foundation and your own Bertarelli Foundation. In addition, relevant start-up companies and other new companies are invited to submit their projects for support. Could you elaborate on this last point?

One of the most difficult steps for a young seed company to overcome is the isolation factor. We’re aiming to tackle that with the Campus Biotech Innovation Park, which will integrate with the rest of the site. It will allow these start-ups to benefit not only from beneficial rental conditions, but also – and very importantly – from a proximity to shared scientific platforms within Campus Biotech. This will give them a huge advantage over traditional environments.This whole concept is based on a translational approach to science, where the goal is to bring new therapeutic solutions as quickly and efficiently as possible from lab to patients, to transform and enhance their lives. Remember, science in itself is not enough – you have to translate it into tangible therapeutic solutions and that is exactly where start-ups are so important.

How do you define the role of Ernesto Bertarelli in this newly created biotechnology and life sciences research centre?

The research programmes which have a home at Campus Biotech come first, and they will drive the success of the centre. My role is to be one of the guardians of the founding vision of Campus Biotech, and also to do what I can using my experience as an entrepreneur to inspire the teams at Campus Biotech to innovate and reach for the sky finding novel solutions to the challenges they face. I’ve learned over the years that science does not recognise national boundaries, and cannot operate in silos. It needs open borders and places where experts from all over the world can collaborate, formally in shared programmes of work and, more informally, through social interaction. Campus Biotech is an initiative to foster that reality, which I seek to pursue in many forms. Another example of putting this into practice is the Bertarelli Program in Translational Neuro­science and Neuroengineering which I introduced in 2011 to encourage research projects at the cutting edge of neuroscience, bringing together students and researchers from both EPFL and Harvard Medical School. The results of these research activities are disseminated through joint symposia, held annually in Lausanne and Massachusetts alternatively. Last year, and for the first time, this symposium took place at Campus Biotech. It epitomises my goal of knowledge transfer to innovate for the greater good of humanity. I also hope that I can share my contacts and the many lessons that I have learned by being immersed in the world of life sciences from a very early age. Traditionally, and correctly, academic institutions have been cautious about their relations with the private sector. But I think our successful partnerships over many decades with academics and universities have helped to create a shared language and a special confidence. I hope that my experience can support a new generation of scientists and business people.

With Alinghi, Ernesto Bertarelli won the America's Cup twice. He is sure though, that the best yacht cannot win a race without the best crew on board - the same goes for a business. SWISS is Alinghi's Official Air Carrier partner.

What were your motives for your engagement in this far-ranging project? Is there an element of family tradition?

For sure – entrepreneurialism runs deep in our family, as does a sense of great responsibility to the community. Creating new ventures, new companies and supporting people to learn, discover and come together in order to achieve something new and sometimes important is intrinsic to our approach. Our role at Campus Biotech is absolutely a part of this continuing story.

The ethos of Campus Biotech is defined as the combination of academia and entrepreneurialism, according to the centre’s website. Could you kindly give your thoughts regarding this statement?

Today, competition within the academic world is higher and tougher than ever – the costs and the level of complexity of research in life sciences are enormous – both academic institutions and the private sector can only gain in collaborating and finding synergies in order to facilitate the progress of science. At Campus Biotech for example, we have put in place scientific platforms that are at the disposal of a variety of entities, research groups, start-ups, companies – it wouldn’t make sense for each of these entities to invest on its own in these technologies. Sharing experience and knowledge is even more important in a small country like Switzerland where life sciences have a big role to play, but are still relatively small compared to the global research and development that is happening in other countries, like the USA. In a few words, as we say in French: “L’union fait la force” (“Unity is strength”).

What is the impact of this new centre for Switzerland? For Europe?

It is still very early to measure the impact, but what we can already say is that this new ecosystem is unique in Europe and indeed has led the way in creating a network of global initiatives in this vital area of research.  For example, soon after Campus Biotech was launched, no less a figure than President Obama announced the new BRAIN Initiative, a collaborative research initiative across many leading US public and private research groups. And then Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, more than doubled funding to his Allen Institute for Brain Science. Early in 2016 I visited the new Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University in California. Switzerland can genuinely be proud of helping to lead the way in this next frontier of science, not just repeating something that already exists, but conceiving a totally new approach by mixing various academic, private and research entities under one roof. For example, with the creation of the Wyss Center, we attracted one of the leading professors in neuroscience from the USA, Professor John Donoghue. With the Human Brain Project, under the leadership of Professor Henry Markram, we host in Geneva a project that is the recipient of 1 billion euro of financial support from the EU to provide a collaborative informatics infrastructure, harnessing the power of “big data” to create true computer models of the human brain. In parallel, we increased our donations to EPFL and there are now four Bertarelli chairs at the University’s Center for Neuro­prostheses, based at Campus Biotech. The combined impact of this research at Campus Biotech will not only be significant for Switzerland and for Europe, but for the entire world, and has given our continent a leading place at the top global table for neuroscience research.

There is an analogy in business talks between the management of a company and the command of a ship. You are a successful business leader and you have won the America’s Cup twice. Can you kindly comment on this analogy?

In business, as in sailing, the main factor in success, at least in my experience, is the team that you create and the people you bring together. You can have the best yacht in the world, you will never win a single race with a bad crew – it is the same in business. If you want to be successful, you have to work with the best people in the area. Most, if not all of my initiatives are the results of encounters – for Campus Biotech it was thanks to my close relationship with Hansjörg Wyss and Patrick Aebischer that we were able to realise this project. It is also important, in sailing and business and philanthropy, to empower your crew, to give them some independence and, more than anything else, learn from them. It all comes down to trust, fundamentally. That has to be established and earned, but once it’s there, it is irreplaceable. It also allows you to delegate and to focus on what you can actually make a difference to yourself.

Since 2010, the Bertarelli Foundation has supported the world’s largest Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, covering a protected area of some 400,000 square miles – the most pristine tropical marine environment on the planet. How did this formid­able engagement start and what does it strive for?

Our family has a special attachment to the sea. That has given us a fairly unique perspective on the condition of the oceans and how they are changing – getting worse dramatically and mostly because of human activity. Creating non-fishing zones and marine reserves is but one way that we can try to address an issue important to us, as is investing in marine science to make discoveries and to prove the power of marine reserves, and to develop new marine science and conservation technologies.

Four wines awarded more than 90 out of 100 Parker points: the prestigious Colle Massari wine estate, owned by the Bertarelli and Tipa families, is located in between the wine-growing areas of Brunello and Morellino in the Alta Maremma region of southern Tuscany.

You are a very busy person considering all your companies, engagements and manifold interests. When and how does Ernesto Bertarelli relax?

In many different ways – spending time with my family on holidays, sharing adventures and special moments with my wife and my children, or simply enjoying a day of skiing with friends followed by a good dinner. Remember, I am Italian, so I love good food! Sport is also still important to me. When the starting gun of a regatta is shot, or when you strike a golf ball off the tee, you need total concentration. In order to achieve this – you can’t think of anything else. It might look stressful from the outside, but it is also a good way to relax from business constraints and a way to focus on one thing and thereby to empty your mind from any other source of stress.

Your family, more precisely your mother Maria Iris Bertarelli and her brother, run the well-known vineyard and estate Colle Massari in the south of Tuscany, which has been named Wine Producer of 2014 by the prestigious Italian wine guide “Gambero Rosso”. Do you have a favourite wine for your daily use?

I find it difficult to choose only one of our wines, as I feel rather spoiled for choice! Only this last year, the wines were recognised by many world experts, including the world famous “Wine Advocate” of the very distinguished Mr Robert Parker, who granted four of our wines more than 90 points out of 100.  So it really comes down to personal preferences or taste, which can of course change to suit where you are at the time, who you are with or what you are eating. I personally like Colle Massari red, which I feel is a great everyday wine, and is served on many SWISS flights. It comes from the region of Montecucco, just opposite the Isola d’Elba.  If I had to pick another one of the wines from this property, my choice would prob­ably be our rosé wine Grottolo, which is rich and has a beautiful dark pink colour, and is my wife’s favourite. Our family is proud to own and care for two other wine estates in Tuscany. The second is Grattamacco, in the Bolgheri region, and is considered one of the top Super Tuscan wines. In this estate, we produce a variety of red wines, Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore (93+/100 Robert Parker for 2012 vintage), Alberello (93/100 Robert Parker for 2012 vintage) and Bolgheri Rosso (92/100 Robert Parker for 2013 vintage) as well as an amazing Vermentino white wine (91/100 Robert Parker for 2013 vintage). Again difficult to choose only one of the four, but let’s say that the Alberello seduces me by the refined sweetness of its tannins … The third property we recently acquired is Poggio di Sotto, the Holy Grail of Brunello, in the region of Montalcino. Our Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2007 won the Best Wine of Italy award in 2013! I am really attached to these properties, which are a reminder of my Italian roots and I am particularly proud of what my mother, my uncle and his wife have achieved there, both with the wine estates and through our Foundation in Italy. This makes a big contribution to the local community in Tuscany and hosts one of the best classical music festivals in the country (

You are a devoted father of three children. Which message do you consider the most import­ant for the path of life of your children?

One of the first things I would like my children to know and to really appreciate is their roots and the historic values of our family. This is very important to me. Having a strong base, knowing who they are and where they are from, and the values and trad­itions passed down through the family, is a vital foundation upon which they will build their own personalities. That’s not to say that is restrictive, far from it. Being curious, asking questions – of their parents and grandparents and of themselves – defining their scope of interest and finding their passions, are fundamental to their growing up. But doing so on a platform of knowing who their family is and what it has always stood for, will, I think, stand them in a good position.

Which is the life motto of Ernesto Bertarelli?

It’s not only what you do that is important, but also how you do it.

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