Philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss and the Wyss Foundation are committed to accelerating the pace and scale of conservation, supporting innovative academic research, and finding long-term solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss.

Since its establishment in 1998, the Wyss Foundation has led the movement to conserve at-risk ecosystems for future generations to enjoy. Leaders & Philanthropists Editor, Samantha Welsh, speaks with the Wyss Foundation to understand how the Foundation and its partners have helped local and indigenous communities, national governments, land trusts, and non-profit partners permanently protect more than 100M acres of land and more than 3M sq km of ocean, an area larger than the landmass of India. Mr. Wyss and the Foundation also support innovative climate and sustainability research through the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Wyss Academy for Nature at the University of Bern.

Hansjörg Wyss meets with staff from The Nature Conservancy, one of the primary organizations executing on his $1.5 billion pledge to protect the planet

LUX: Could you share the story behind the creation of your organisation and what motivated you to focus on conservation?

Wyss Foundation: When Hansjörg Wyss first came to the United States as a student in 1958, his weekends hiking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains sparked a lifelong love for the open landscapes of the American West. What inspired Mr. Wyss the most was how our National Parks and public lands – unlike many protected areas abroad – are a public good. More than 300 million people visit our National Parks each year, and the Wyss Foundation is committed to ensuring future generations will be able to do the same on public lands around the world.

Ensuring future generations can enjoy the open landscapes of the American West was core to Hansjörg Wyss establishing the Wyss Foundation

LUX: What was behind your decision to scale up support for organisations working to curb global biodiversity loss?

WF: Climate change and biodiversity loss are the defining problems of the coming decades. As the impact of climate change becomes more apparent by the day, we have seen mounting evidence that the loss of biodiversity presents an existential threat to human prosperity and security. A significant majority of the planet’s surface has been severely altered by humans, and without a course correction, one million species are facing the threat of extinction – many within decades. Seeing the urgency of the moment, our founder committed $1 billion USD to launch the Wyss Campaign for Nature, jumpstarting the movement to conserve 30% of the earth’s surface in a natural state by 2030.

LUX: How did the Wyss Campaign for Nature catalyze collaboration?

WF: Getting conservation done requires close collaboration with local communities, Indigenous Peoples, all levels of government, private industry, and philanthropy. After Mr. Wyss pledged $1 billion to the 30×30 target, numerous other private donors, nonprofit organizations, and governments have joined our efforts. In 2021, we were also proud to increase our commitment to 30×30 through the Protecting Our Planet Challenge, partnering with other funders to pledge $5 billion to protect the planet by 2030 – the largest-ever gift for conservation.

LUX: How did this motivate public and governments’ engagement?

WF: Following years of hard-fought negotiations, nations ratified a plan to protect the planet’s biodiversity at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15). The plan calls for wealthier nations to mobilize $30 billion annually to help conserve 30% of the world’s surface by the year 2030. Crucially, the agreement also recognizes and protects the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, enabling sustainable management by the rightful owners of the land. As Mr. Wyss said at the time, ‘This is a historic achievement, which will protect wildlife and wild places and ensure our children, and their children, have every opportunity to live prosperous, healthy, and wondrous lives.’

Working with organizations like Oceana, the Wyss Foundation is investing in rebuilding marine biodiversity and restoring fisheries

LUX: How does Wyss Foundation partner with others to accelerate impacts globally?

WF: Partnering with land trusts, local and indigenous communities, nonprofits, and governments has been central to our efforts to accelerate the pace of conservation. Leveraging the expertise of our grantees like The Nature Conservancy, we’ve been able to establish long-term partnerships and speed up the land conservation process.

The Wyss Foundation provided funding to expand the Aconquija National Park, protecting a critically important mountain chain in north central Argentina

For instance, in Australia’s Eastern Outback, we helped to purchase and permanently protect more than 400,000 acres of megadiverse wildlands. In Belize, we purchased a 236,000-acre plot, in the Selva Maya tropical forest, home to hundreds of animal species and endangered wildlife like jaguars and black howler monkeys. We’ve also invested in innovative conservation financing programs including the Caribbean Blue Bonds Project, working to help Caribbean nations restructure their sovereign debt to finance the conservation of at least 30% of their marine territory.

LUX: What has The Wyss Institute achieved to date?

WF: The Wyss Institute isn’t a traditional research center. Instead, it is focused on creating new technologies and applications to benefit human health and the environment through the formation of startups and corporate partnerships. Over the past 15 years, it has generated more than 4,000 patent flings, more than 130 licensing agreements, and 58 startups.

One particular area of focus is adapting building materials and technologies to mitigate climate change. As global temperatures rise and pose a threat to human health, developing climate-friendly air conditioning is more important than ever. Wyss Institute researchers are working to develop a low-energy, pollutant-free AC system called cSNAP, based on evaporative cooling that uses up to 75% less energy than traditional vapor-compression systems.

LUX: How will your Foundation continue to advocate for science-based resource management and protect people and planet?

WF: We are proud to see the progress toward conserving 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030, but there’s much more to be done. For the first time, nations around the world are committed to a science-based biodiversity goal.

The Wyss Foundation supported an expansion of the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, a crucial habitat for endangered Hawaiian hawksbill turtle. Image courtesy of the National Parks Service

Now, we need to redouble our collaborative efforts and ensure that nations, philanthropists, and local communities are pulling together to execute on our promise.