Interview – Alain Mérieux

Alain MerieuxBoth Mérieux Alliance, the Mérieux family’s holding company, which brings together five international companies in the field of health, and the two family foundations, Fondation Mérieux and Fondation Christophe et Rodolphe Mérieux, work to combat infectious diseases in developing countries. Are there advantages in having company and foundation working in the same field like this, Alliance asked Alain Mérieux, who is president of both.

One very obvious advantage in having both company and foundation working in the same field is being able to draw on a common expertise. Alain Mérieux  gives Haiti as an example. When the foundation started looking into working there, they found a lack of expertise in the area of HIV/AIDS. But a scientist working for bioMérieux was willing to work in Port-au-Prince for two years, paid for by the foundation, at the end of which time they were able to set up an HIV lab.

However, Mérieux  stresses, the company operates an ‘open door policy’, which means that employees who want to spend a year or two as a volunteer in a developing country have the opportunity to work at the foundation or somewhere else. ‘I think it is a good motivation for employees to know they can work for a non-profit foundation sharing common roots with their company.’

The company and the foundation also benefit from a common international scientific network. The objective of Fondation Mérieux is to strengthen clinical biology potential in the field. Often a university medical or veterinary school will approach them and ask the foundation to move into their country. Every year, they look at perhaps four or five projects and select one. ‘We work in a very pragmatic way,’ says Mérieux. ‘The key thing in selecting a project is to find the right organization and the right people to work with us locally. Otherwise you build and you have no future. So, for instance, we have been able to build the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory in Cambodia because we work very closely with a wonderful woman, the Dean of the University of Pharmacy.’ In Laos, the key contact was the health minister, in Haiti it was the founder of the Gheskio Centers, a local NGO (‘we have been very far from the government there’), and in Lebanon it’s the Dean of the Jesuit University. 

To what extent are business approaches used in running the foundation? ‘I’ve been running companies in the biological industries for 40 years,’ says Mérieux, ‘and we try to be efficient and transparent, and we take a similar approach with the foundation. Of course we have no financial results because we are a non-profit organization but we have objectives, we have targets, we have reporting, we have management by project. It is run with the same efficiency as the company.’

Another attitude that comes from the company is a global perspective. ‘We are in the field of biology where there is no border. We’ve known for a long time that to work against viruses or bacteria we have to be completely global – we cannot say that here is a market and here is not a market. So by training, we are worldwide-minded.’

‘The task is so huge that we have to work as part of a network,’ says Mérieux. ‘We work closely with the Pasteur Institute, the Agence Français de Developpement, the Gates Foundation, WHO, the EU.’ And here not being a company is a real advantage. ‘With the company we are always obliged to be in competition with other companies. One of the big advantages of being a foundation is that we don’t have to compete. Instead, we can work together and avoid this vain competition, and that makes a big difference.’

Is there any conflict of interest in having company and foundation working in the same field? ‘Absolutely none,’ Mérieux  insists. ‘Both organizations are run very transparently. Fondation Mérieux has public interest status and thus is under control of the French state, which means we have to be even more transparent than a registered company, and many of our partnerships include very strict reporting obligations. And although they work on the same issue, public health, and many do know each other, the company staff and foundation staff are completely independent.’

The Mérieux  Foundations

Fondation Mérieux carries out a wide range of activities to promote local research on infectious diseases, develop local laboratory capacity, train public health workers, and share scientific information with the rest of the world. Fondation Christophe et Rodolphe Mérieux, named after Alain Mérieux’s two sons, under the aegis of Institut de France, has two main activities. Each year it awards an annual research prize of €400,000 and sets up one Rodolphe Mérieux infectious disease laboratory. They now exist in Haiti, Mali, Laos, Cambodia and Madagascar, and next year one will be set up in Lebanon.

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