Hansjörg Wyss reached into his deep pockets last year to help revive the ailing biotech sector and life sciences scene in Geneva, building on his previous work to tap his fortune from the medical devices industry to bankroll foundational discoveries in regenerative medicine and other biomedical fields.
In June, Wyss (pronounced Veese) sold his Swiss medical device manufacturer Synthes to Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) for $20 billion, and Forbes estimates his personal fortune to be $8.7 billion, which makes him the second-richest man in Switzerland behind the family of Ernesto Bertarelli, who is heir to the Serono biotech fortune. But unfortunately Merck KGaA, which bought Serono in 2007, last year decided to pull the plug on the Geneva headquarters of the company.
After German Merck's move dealt a blow to the Swiss biotech scene, Wyss and Bertarelli teamed up with other local interests to purchase the R&D headquarters of Merck Serono in Geneva. Wyss' foundation plans to sink $100 million into the campus over 6 years to establish the Wyss Institute, a new hub of biotech and healthcare innovation. His bankroll is expected to fuel labs devoted to bioengineering and next-generation prosthetics.
The institute drew immediate comparisons to Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which Wyss himself underwrote with a big $125 million gift in 2009, making it the largest in the history of the Ivy League school. Via the institute, Wyss has attached his name to some of the most prolific biotech inventors in the world, including Harvard chemist and Genzyme co-founder George Whitesides and Harvard geneticist George Church, a pioneer of genetic multiplexing.
With his checkbook, Wyss has shown that he endorses a brand of highly risky but groundbreaking biotech research that calls for experts from multiple fields to play roles in solving complex medical problems. And his philanthropic support of research at Harvard has already funded inventions such as a microchip model of the lung and drug-coated nanoparticles that could find use against multiple diseases.
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