Published: 01.11.10

The great industrialist and patron Branco Weiss dies aged 81

The industrialist and patron Branco Weiss died in Zurich on 31 October at the age of 81 after a serious illness. The ETH-Zurich chemical engineer enjoyed close ties with the university as a lecturer, sponsor and friend.

Thomas Langholz
Branco Weiss, patron and sponsor of ETH Zurich. (Photo: ETH Zurich)
Branco Weiss, patron and sponsor of ETH Zurich. (Photo: ETH Zurich) (large view)

Branco Weiss was renowned both nationally and internationally as a visionary industrialist and patron. At ETH Zurich, he financed the construction of the Information Science Laboratory (HIT) on the Hönggerberg and the Society in Science foundation he initiated. “We mourn the loss of a good friend and a generous sponsor, to whom we all owe so much and who will be sorely missed”, says ETH-Zurich President Ralph Eichler.

The role of industrialist and patron didn’t exactly fall into his lap, however. Born in Zagreb, Croatia on 23 April 1929, Weiss fled to Switzerland as a young man to escape fascism. He graduated from ETH Zurich with a degree in chemical engineering in 1951. Subsequently, he enjoyed great success with a number of companies in the biotech and computer sector. From 1985 to 1994 he lectured on corporate management and technological strategies at ETH Zurich.

Weiss also supported young spin-offs as a mentor and untiring innovator at a time when the term was still unheard of. But he didn’t just help the founders financially; he also offered them the benefit of his vast knowledge and critical mind. It wasn’t until later that many of them realised just how much of an impact he had had on their companies’ success through his tips and advice. In his successful entrepreneurial activities he always saw a duty to help and support others. “Gratitude is also a kind of righteousness”, as he himself said.

ETH Zurich sponsor

Branco Weiss' dedication to education and research was apparent at numerous institutions both in Switzerland and abroad. However, he felt a strong connection with ETH Zurich. Apart from boosting ETH-Zurich spin-offs, he also supported the education of young students and scientists. He was one of the founding fathers of the pilot project “Academic and Career Advisory Program” (ACAP), for example, which offered students information and guidance before and during their degrees and in embarking on their careers.

In 2002 he founded the junior programme “Society in Science”, which offers budding scientists the possibility to work on a particular topic at an institute of their choice for up to five years after their doctorate. Only this June Weiss donated the program with a foundation capital of 20 million francs to ETH Zurich as of 1 January 2011. Olaf Kübler, President of ETH Zurich from 1997 to 2005 and Managing Director of “Society in Science”, was a close friend of Weiss’: “Together, we were able to do a lot of important work for the welfare of ETH Zurich and its success. We shared a common destiny in the establishment and development of Society in Science and had plenty of time to prepare everything well. As a legacy of Branco Weiss – with ETH Zurich at the helm – the programme has a great future ahead of it. The present and future fellows owe him a great deal in building their careers”.

He generously supported the construction of the HIT Building on the Science City campus. The Branco Weiss Information Science Laboratory, which was named after him, was inaugurated in October 2008. The building was right up his street: on the one hand, it offers an innovative teaching and research environment for the subjects of architecture, biology, imaging, theoretical physics and astronomy; on the other hand, it is a meeting place where people can exchange new ideas. For Gerhard Schmitt, a professor of information architecture, Weiss was an exceptional personality: “Over the last few decades Branco Weiss made amazing things possible for numerous people and achieved so much in the university sector – as a man of industry, a visionary high-tech entrepreneur, a contemporary and a generous sponsor of research, education and art. With his passing, we have lost an exceptional human being.”

Man of action, man with heart

He received many awards and accolades for his achievements. In 1998 ETH Zurich awarded him an honorary doctorate. He also received the Staudinger Medal from the Department of Material Science and was an honorary member of the Swiss Engineer and Architect Association (SIA) and the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW). According to ETH-Zurich President Ralph Eichler, ETH Zurich owes a great deal to Branco Weiss, and not just materially: “Through the great human bond with him, the university has benefited in countless ways from his razor-sharp wit and curiosity.”

Branco Weiss was a man of action. If he was convinced by an idea, he supported it wholeheartedly. His straight-thinking manner and critical mind were especially appreciated by young people. In a recent newspaper article he wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, he explained his motivation to keep supporting projects: “The main goal of the entrepreneurial patron is to obtain knowledge and he acts from two perspectives. He knows that most people respond to change and upheaval with fear; to shape the future, however, this fear needs to be overcome.”