An interview with third-gen explorer Bertrand Piccard

With his Nehru collar, trim figure, shaved head and self-contained manner, Bertrand Piccard radiates mystery. Is he a rock-star? An artist?

The truth is even more surprising. He is, in fact, a third-generation explorer, not to mention a trained psychiatrist. He is most famous for being one of the two men on the first hot-air balloon to fly non-stop round the world. Now he plans to repeat the trip, but this time in a solar-powered plane called Solar Impulse. Take-off is scheduled for next year.

The obvious question is: why? “A little bit of it comes from the spirit of my family, trying to use scientific exploration and adventure,” the 56-year-old Swiss-born Piccard said when Family Capital met him at the IMD business school in Lausanne.

“But it is also to improve the quality of life. At the end of the round-the-world balloon trip we had 40 kilos of liquid propane left out of the 3.7 tonnes at takeoff. Fuel was the challenge and I started to dream of being free of fuel and being able to fly as long as I wanted. I promised to myself then that I would try fly round the world with no fuel.”

As family businesses go, exploring is a pretty unusual one. Though not unique: the Cousteau family of undersea explorers is currently also in its third generation. Piccard’s grandfather Auguste was a professor of physics who was friends with Einstein and was the first human to travel into the stratosphere and see the earth’s curvature, in a balloon he designed himself.

He then invented the bathyscaphe and dived to new depths in the ocean. His adventures inspired the character of Professor Calculus in the Tin Tin books. Bertrand’s father Jacques dived to the deepest point in the ocean, the Marianas Trench, and campaigned against the pollution of the oceans.

It isn’t pushing the definition too far to call exploring a family business, because both Jacques and Bertrand have persuaded businesses to pay for their projects: these are not self-funded playboys.

Solar Impulse has 80 sponsors and the true scope of the project becomes clear when you realise that only two of these are in aviation. The most extraordinary thing about Solar Impulse is arguably not the flight itself, but the technology his team is developing for the plane.

The innovations include a new sort of insulation, engines that are 97% efficient (modern car engines are just 30% efficient), new batteries, glues, carbon fibres and LED lights.

“If the technologies we have developed were used on a global scale by everybody, we could divide in half the energy consumption of the world today,” says Piccard. “And it would be profitable. It would create jobs, would assist in the growth of industry, and it would have nothing to do with a green philosophy where you reduce consumption, lifestyle or mobility.” The new insulation is already being used in fridges, says Piccard.

And this is where family once again comes into Solar Impulse. All of the big main sponsors -- Omega, Solvay, Schindler and ABB -- are family-controlled firms. This is no accident. “These people are long-term oriented,” says Piccard.

“Most firms are short-term oriented because they are looking at their share price. But these families have long-term vision.” Only family firms, he thinks, are willing to invest in innovation, to fail, and to keep on trying.

Being at heart entrepreneurial businesses, they also understand innovation, and that it comes from outside the established players in an industry. Although Solar Impulse is about building and flying an aircraft, the inventions that spin off it will really be about energy efficiency which will have applications in a wide variety of industries and sectors. That is exactly how innovation should work, says Piccard.

He points out that the Tesla car company was founded by Elon Musk, who made his fortune with PayPal, and that Swatch made the Smart car. As Piccard puts it: “It wasn’t candle-makers who invented the lightbulb.”

The potential impact of this combination of a family of explorers and a bunch of family firms is mind-boggling. It is intriguing that the man behind it, who is presumably influenced heavily by the male role-models in his family, has a degree in psychiatry. So how does that training influence his life’s work?

“I have noticed that most of the people who are unhappy in life -- either anxious, depressed, unsuccessful or unfilled -- are people who are afraid of the unknown and who try to control things that they cannot control,” Piccard says. “This make them always fighting and resisting life rather than using it as an experience to learn and evaluate. I believe that the best antidepressant you can get is pioneering spirit.”

Who would dare disagree?