Josh Boger Finds Beauty Off the Coast of Fiji, in Life After Vertex
Turns out, he’s found peace and beauty. He discovered it about as far away from the biotech grind as you can possibly get.
Boger, as many readers know, is the founder and former president and CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Vertex (NASDAQ: VRTX). He spent 20 of the most productive years of his career in the biotech pressure-cooker, raising money, building a scientific team, and plotting strategy for the harrowing long-term journey that is new drug development.
One of the ways Boger tried to keep his balance was through travel and photography. Those hobbies gradually morphed into the more demanding and highly skilled pursuit of underwater photography. Boger, not the type to do things half-way, has captured thousands of images of coral reefs, fish, sharks, and all kinds of living things most people never get to see. Boger has been so enthralled by what he saw and photographed off the coast of Fiji that he was invited to display his work throughout the month of January at the Ayer Lofts Art Gallery in Lowell, MA.
The images on display (see thumbnail samples below) are taken from more than 200 dives Boger has done off the coast of Wakaya, a private island that’s part of Fiji.
Here’s how he described his underwater photography exhibit in a recent invitation to friends:
Wakaya is a paradise island, preserved by a hopelessly idealistic billionaire and his wife, David & Jillian Gilmour, as the ‘…last sane place in a world gone mad.’ Fiji, 1,500 miles from the nearest continent, is, arguably, the last important unspoiled place on earth. In this environment there is Beauty that challenges our dystopian assumptions. This polychromatic, fractal Beauty is herein celebrated. Enjoy. It’s our only planet.
When I first read that paragraph, I thought it sounded like a guy who was burned out. But that’s not it. Boger is still on the board of Vertex. He is closely involved in a startup called Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, teaches occasionally at MIT and Harvard Business School, chairs the board of trustees at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and serves on the board of The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, NY. He works on a slew of arts and education-related activities.
At 62, he’s no longer interested in the day-to-day responsibility of running a biotech company, but he’s not exactly “retired” in any traditional sense of the word. “I’m a busy guy,” he says.
After reading his note, I wondered how Boger ended up getting into this underwater photography world, and what attracted him to it. When we spoke last week by phone, he said he’s been an amateur photographer since the 1970s, seeking to capture spontaneous images of people in unusual environments. One of his favorites from his early work is of a boy wearing a flowered shirt, with flowers in the background, in the former Yugoslavia.
By 2000, Boger says he started experimenting with underwater photography. He says he got more serious when he upgraded his equipment in 2006, while he was still the CEO of Vertex. Instead of taking a few hundred pictures on an underwater dive, he could start taking thousands.
Underwater photography, for those unfamiliar, is serious stuff. An underwater photographer needs to first be a skilled diver, one who’s calm and comfortable controlling his or her breath for long periods of time. It’s important to maintain consistent control of one’s buoyancy, to remain still, to capture a quality image. Then all the photographic skills come into play—attention to light, eye for detail, quick reflexes, and the ability to properly handle equipment.
This is the sort of task that requires undivided attention. Biotech executives, like a lot of busy people in the digital age, tend to multi-task through the day. So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Boger isn’t the only biotech executive drawn to underwater photography. Geron CEO John “Chip” Scarlett is known for his photography of sharks.
“I was attracted by the Zen aspect,” Boger says. “The more you get calmed down about being in the environment and responsive to the resistance of water in a positive way, the less energy you use. The better you get at it, the less energy you use. It was a counterbalance to what I was doing, in a high-stress, high-energy environment.”
As Boger got more and more immersed in the new hobby, he found his own little slice of paradise in Fiji. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far away from any population centers on the continents, the air and water are exceptionally pure, Boger says. Most places in the world, within 500 miles of continental coastline, the water is affected by runoff.
Fiji, of course, isn’t the only set of remote islands in the Pacific. But it is unusual in that it has some relatively large landmasses comparable in size to Rhode Island, Boger says. There’s no sunscreen clouding the waters off Wakaya, no fishing allowed off one side of the island, and no pesticides are permitted by the owner of the private island, Boger says. The owner, a Canadian gold mining billionaire, has set up a sustainable agriculture system so that almost all the food for the several hundred islanders can be produced organically, on-site. (Boger hasn’t bought property there, but he stays at a private resort there for about a month each year, he says).
About 40-70 feet below the surface of the water, just off Fiji’s private island of Wakaya, is where Boger has done most of his photography. The water is clear enough there so that there’s plenty of light way past the 120 feet down that he has gone. The coral reefs are “very healthy” and much brighter than in the Atlantic.
“The color intensity is amazing,” he says.
Capturing good images underwater requires getting very close to the action, whether that’s a coral reef, or a fish. Boger has also encountered his share of sharks underwater, and they tend to perk right up when he flashes a strobe light. “It’s a bit disconcerting when four or five sharks turn and respond to your strobe light,” he says. “It’s a moment to remember all your breath exercises.”
During this time of year when people are making resolutions, Boger is insistent about the value of having interests outside work. From the early days of Vertex, Boger said he offered employees three weeks of vacation, and bumped it up to four weeks after five years. Getting away, he says, is essential to being productive in biotech. He wanted to make sure people couldn’t bank vacation time and roll it over from year to year, claiming they were too busy to get away.
“I think it’s essential to get away to get perspective,” Boger says. “It’s not just for energy, not just recharging your batteries, as people say. It’s about getting perspective. [Biotech] is so intense for so long. I don’t claim any uniqueness in biotech, in terms of how hard it is, but it is unique in the length of time you need to focus to get anything done. There’s nothing else like it that humans do.”
Perspective is often hard to find in a fast-moving, short-term focused world. It’s normal, and expected, that people push themselves incredibly hard for a long time in biotech. Burnout is common. It only makes sense that taking the occasional real break, and seeking out a meaningful new perspective that’s far away from the day-to-day, can help a person get through this long and difficult journey. It’s also just plain good for the soul.