Josh Boger Finds Beauty Off the Coast of Fiji, in Life After Vertex

1/6/14Follow @xconomy

What has Josh Boger been doing the past four years in his supposed “retirement” from Vertex Pharmaceuticals?

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.

Josh Boger

Josh Boger

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.

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

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 … Next Page »

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