Hansjorg Wyss was born in Bern, Switzerland on September 19, 1935. He earned an MS degree in Civil and Structural Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1959, and an MBA from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business in 1965. After completing his education, Wyss was employed in the textile industry in places like Pakistan, Turkey, and the Philippines. He also worked in the steel industry in Belgium, during which time he ran a side business selling airplanes. One of his buyers was a surgeon who in 1960 had co-founded the Swiss medical-device manufacturer Synthes; this encounter eventually led to Wyss becoming the founder and president of Synthes’s U.S. division in 1977.
In 1998, Mr. Wyss established the Wyss Foundation, which later became a member of the Democracy Alliance, as a philanthropy dedicated to supporting “projects in areas from conservation and education to economic opportunity and social justice.” As of March 2015, Wyss and his Foundation had donated more than $350 million to environmental causes. The recipients of those funds were largely leftist organizations that view capitalism and human industrial activity as inherently destructive of the natural world. In 2010, for instance, Wyss contributed $35 million to help the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the Nature Conservancy purchase 310,000 acres of private timberlands in northern Montana, to protect grizzly bear and wolverine habitats from encroachment by business and industry. In 2013 he donated $4.25 million to TPL, to purchase oil and gas leases on 58,000 acres Wyoming’s Hoback Basin and thereby protect the region from development. That same year, Wyss spent $2 million to help dismantle the 100-year-old Veazie Dam and thus restore fish passage in Maine’s Penobscot River. And in 2015, Wyss Foundation funds helped the Nature Conservancy purchase 3,184 acres along the Hoh River in Washington, in an effort to increase salmon populations there.
In addition, Mr. Wyss has established a number of endowed chairs in medicine; he supports research, education, and training at numerous universities and hospitals; in 2009 he contributed $125 million to Harvard University to fund the establishment of a biological institute bearing his name; in 2013 he pledged another $125 million to Harvard; and in 2014 he pledged $120 million to help two Swiss universities create a center dedicated to the acceleration of medical breakthroughs.
In 2009, Wyss helped establish the PeaceNexus Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that helps government institutions, non-governmental organizations, and businesses find ways to promote peacebuilding efforts in conflict-plagued areas. Wyss and his Foundation have also provided scholarships and fellowships in the fields of music, medicine, business, and the arts at institutions worldwide.
Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars he has contributed to left-wing activist groups over the years, Wyss has also distinguished himself as a major ally of the Democratic Party and has given millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. In 2013, Wyss’s now-defunct HJW Foundation paid $87,083 to Democrat operative and close Clinton ally John Podesta, for consulting services he provided. During Podesta’s tenure as chief executive officer of the Center For American Progress, on whose board of directors Wyss himself serves, the organization received $4.1 million in funding from Wyss.
In 2009, U.S. Attorneys for Eastern Pennsylvania indicted several of Synthes’s top executives for having used (in clinical trials during 2007) an untested calcium-phosphate-based bone cement, which had not been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, on human patients who were never informed that the compound was being injected into their spines; five of the patients died as a direct result of this experimental procedure. Rather than taking the case to trial, the Obama–Holder Justice Department arranged a settlement in which four Synthes executives were sentenced to prison terms while the company paid a $22 million fine. Wyss, by contrast, was never indicted, and the Justice Department never explained why.
In 2012, Wyss sold Synthes to Johnson & Johnson for $20.2 billion in cash and stock.
In December 2013, Wyss and six fellow billionaires signed “The Giving Pledge,” a document that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett had drafted in 2009 in which they promised to eventually give away at least half of their respective fortunes to charity.
In December 2013 as well, the Wyss Foundation donated $5 million to the Clinton Foundation in support of its “No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project,” whose mission was “to accelerate full participation for women and girls in the 21st century.”
According to the Washington Free Beacon, a leaked Wyss Foundation memo from March 2015 indicated that the philanthropy was planning to spend $100 million over a five-year period to promote a variety of initiatives designed to “alter the [American] electorate” and thereby influence the results of U.S. elections in a manner that would increase Democrat power at all levels of government. These initiatives would include voter-registration drives, outreach, research, organizing, and legal and policy advocacy with regard to voting laws. Notably, the Wyss Foundation privately informed the Democratic National Committee about these plans.
On October 31, 2018, Mr. Wyss published an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he pledged to donate $1 billion “over the next decade to help accelerate land and ocean conservation around the world.” Specifically, he lamented that “plant and animal species are estimated to be disappearing at a rate 1,000 times faster than they were before humans arrived on the scene”; “climate change is upending natural systems across the planet”; and “forests, fisheries and drinking water supplies are imperiled as extractive industries chew further into the wild.” A key objective of Wyss’s initiative, a 12-year project called the Wyss Campaign for Nature, would be to help conserve 30 percent of the planet in a natural state by creating and expanding protected areas and encouraging conservation activities worldwide.
As of July 2017, Hansjorg Wyss’s net worth was estimated at $6.79 billion.