“In business, people tend to take a short-term, often very selfish, view”, says billionaire Hansjörg Wyss

Hansjörg Wyss is an unconventional environmentalist. He protects large patches of wilderness and advocates carbon taxes as well as electricity generated by nuclear power.

By Birgit Voigt / 04/20/2019 Interview

Drives a hybrid and questions the value of e-mobility as long as the power is generated with coal: Hansjörg Wyss.

Drives a hybrid and questions the value of e-mobility as long as the power is generated with coal: Hansjörg Wyss.

Sunday newspaper NZZ am Sonntag: Mr. Wyss, would it be proper to call you an environmentalist?

Hansjörg Wyss: It depends on the definition...

An environmentally minded individual who rejects economic growth at the sole expense of nature?

This is the general gist. It is important to me to be able to draw my own conclusions as an independent thinker, irrespective of the interests of major industries, banks and politicians.

You established a successful global enterprise and made a fortune when you sold it. Now you are spending one billion dollars to protect pristine patches of wilderness. What is your inspiration?

Let me start by saying that the successful establishment of the enterprise was made possible by the close collaboration with the physicians of the AO Foundation. As for what motivates me to conserve nature: animals and plants are disappearing at an alarming rate. Biologist Edward Wilson believes that close to half of our planet should be protected from exploitation to avert extinction. I am committed to supporting the efforts of conserving nearly 30% of the earth’s surface as nature reserves for humanity by 2030.

Hansjörg Wyss, a generous philanthropist

The 84-year old resident of Bern is the founder of the medical device company Synthes. When he sold it to the American corporation Johnson & Johnson in 2011, Wyss presumably became the richest Swiss citizen at the time, with a fortune of almost 16 billion Swiss Francs.

In 2013, he pledged to donate half of his assets to charitable causes. For many years, he contributed several 100 million to fund research institutions in the USA and Switzerland, with the aim of converting new medical and technical insights to products.

A second focus is on international and American nature and landscape conservation projects, which Wyss has been backing since 1998. Last week, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honored his merits with a membership. Wyss currently resides in the USA, in the State of Wyoming. He has one daughter. (vob.)

Where does your love of nature originate from?

It was imparted to me by my parents. My father was an avid artist and took us to visit many museums. My mom was engaged in politics, fighting for women’s rights. At the dinner table, we discussed politics, culture and world events. Our parents often went camping with us to foster our appreciation of nature and to teach us the names of plants, flowers and trees. And I learned that there are many things in need of protection.

But you subsequently earned an engineering degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH, in Zurich.

Yes, and I found it appalling to witness that everything was done in the name of maximizing efficiency. The agricultural engineers attempted to channelize every stream to prevent it from interfering with the production. The civil engineers wanted to design perfect highways with perfect curves. In so doing, they were absolutely oblivious to the fact that a marvelous local recreation area, the Bremgartenwald Forest near Bern, was cut down. The engineering studies did not include any optional subjects that covered any points of view other than the purely technical ones. I attended lectures in art history and national economics as a contrast to this slanted notion.

Modern economic systems are all based on an approach to growth. Can this be compatible with nature conservancy?

It’s a vicious cycle. The global population continues to grow rapidly. This puts a considerable strain on the land. People need food, everybody wants to own a cell phone, and the slightly wealthier even a car … while every business is under significant pressure to grow. If it fails, it immediately comes under fire from shareholders and analysts.

Without economic growth, the advances of one party are attained at the expense of another. This instantly results in an existential struggle for resources.

That’s true, but I don’t have the answer to these difficult issues. I am unable to solve them as an individual. All I’m trying to do is selectively save landscapes with my team. For instance, with the permission from the Peruvian government, we succeeded in protecting a giant area in the source region of the Amazon and its indigenous tribes. It is off-limits for the industrial exploitation of the rain forest.

“Like in Britain, some politicians in Switzerland are deceiving the population with populist statements.”

With the “circular economy strategy”, the EU plans to make entire industries compatible with nature. Is this a feasible alternative?

I think it’s an excellent idea. It is a challenging concept that likewise requires the harmonization of standards. I see an urgent need for action with respect to plastics. These days, products contain so many different types of synthetic materials that proper recycling has become extremely complex. Large quantities end up in the environment as microplastics, causing harm that cannot yet be fully assessed.

At the same time, the EU is pushing the automotive industry toward electromobility. Are you already driving a Tesla?

No, I am driving a Toyota Prius, a latest generation hybrid vehicle. It has the best energy to performance ratio, using the kinetic energy to charge the battery every time I apply the brakes. This is the best available technology at the moment.

What is your opinion about electromobility?

Right now, I’m not impressed. To produce the batteries, the raw materials again need to be mined in less fortunate countries. What happens to the environment in the process is unfathomable. And as long as electricity cannot be produced without polluting the environment, e-mobility is a vain endeavor. Wherever the demand for electricity increases, coal is used at growing rates. To meet the demand, we should be using electricity generated by nuclear power apart from water, wind and solar. The decision in favor of abandoning nuclear power in Switzerland and Germany was made on a gut and emotional level. In my opinion, it is one of the most ignorant decisions made in recent years.

In that case, what kinds of drive technologies should we be focusing on?

We should invest much more heavily in the research of hydrogen engines. This would be the cleanest technology by far.

You are residing in the USA and experience first-hand the Trump administration’s withdrawal of environmental protection rules under the pretext of «over-regulation». What is your assessment of this development?

I consider the actions of the Trump administration to be a catastrophe, setting the country’s advances back many years. All of a sudden, previously banned pesticides can be applied again. Even the completely inefficient incandescent light bulbs may soon be making a comeback, because the government is backtracking on current regulations. It’s incredible!

Trump argues that high standards are detrimental to the economy.

To the contrary; it’s a silly argument. He allows the American automotive industry to remain on a low technological level. At the moment, American cars are selling well, because fuel is much too inexpensive. But once the prices rise, customers will prefer fuel-efficient Asian cars. A government must set high standards for its own industries. This is the only way to keep them competitive, while at the same time reducing the resource consumption of the products.

Countless projects are underway, demonstrating the technical feasibility of carbon-neutral heating, cooling and even the operation of vehicles using sustainable energy. Why are they failing to achieve a mass effect, instead remaining hidden in a niche?

Remember how long it took for solar collectors to be used at a large scale? In the USA, virtually no homes feature solar panel roofs even in the sunny states including Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico. In contrast, almost every house on the opposite side of the border, in Mexico, is equipped with them. The legal framework conditions are missing in the USA, highlighting once again their importance. The only exception is California, where all new homes must be built with installed solar collectors in the near future.

Should a carbon tax be levied on every product to factor in its climate footprint?

Prices are a powerful means for guidance. That’s why I’m absolutely in favor of implementing it. Only if the price of pollution becomes evident will consumers be able to make a conscious decision and to realign their behavior.

In Switzerland, the Councils will be debating the revision of the CO2 Act one more time. Mr. Wyss, what is your advice as an entrepreneur to other businesses that reject the tightening of the act for fear of cost increases?

I followed the discussion during the winter. Some of the arguments are beyond comprehension. In business, people tend to take a short-term, often very selfish, view.

Are you sometimes surprised at how little is achieved in spite of it all?

My common-law partner is an administrative board member of the former American vice-president, Al Gore’s organization. Al has phenomenal poise and persuasive power. But even he has difficulties in enticing governments and influential politicians to take concrete action.

The proposed framework agreement with the EU is highly controversial in this country. What is your opinion about the treaty?

I urge Switzerland to sign the framework agreement. After all, trading with the EU is nothing but beneficial for us. With the new regulation, we secure ourselves permanent access to the market, to the exchange with higher education institutions and to the EU research funds. This is vital for our country’s well-being.

Are you not expecting any pressure on wages?

Wages in Switzerland are as high as they are because our workforce is highly skilled and develops high-margin products. Our wage level is not at risk. Like in Britain, some politicians in Switzerland are deceiving the population with populist statements. For the British people’s sake, I hope that there will be another vote when all the facts are on the table.

Your Wyss Foundation is funding two research institutions in Geneva and Zurich. New, it will also be sponsoring a project at the University of Bern. What is it about?

It is about the establishment of an institute dedicated to sustainable development. For the time being, we have earmarked 2 million SFr for Bern. This money will be used to fund two pilot projects in Kenya and Peru and to develop a real-life concept for the institute. The focus will be on how to accomplish a sustainable development of human beings and nature in mutual agreement.

How satisfied are you with the achievements of Wyss Zurich? Its focus is on products and applications related to regenerative medicine and robotics and it has been in business since the end of 2014 when you provided 120 million SFr for its establishment.

Thanks to the collaboration of the two higher education institutions ETH and University of Zurich with their rectors and the excellent management by the directors of the institute, Professor Simon Hoerstrup and Professor Roland Siegwart, we are able to announce the first tangible breakthroughs. We can present three or four projects conducted by young researchers, which would have been abandoned without our help. The first venture capitalists are now making an appearance and join the project. That was my vision for the institute.

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Nicole Baillis