Man with a Mission

Growing up in western Colorado, Bill Patterson loved the outdoors. “We’d go camping and I’d spend my time looking at birds, fish, even insects,” he recalls. Some guys never entirely grow up. Currently, Patterson, 46, is chair of the board of trustees at the recently reopened 410,000-square-foot California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

“Look at me now,” says the affable Harvard graduate (magna cum laude, ’84) and Stanford MBA (Arjay Miller Scholar, ’89). “Almost every day I’m surrounded by the Academy’s 20 million research specimens, which includes some 700,000 carefully pinned butterflies along with 38,000 live animals that include a colony of South African penguins that need feeding twice a day.” In his “real life,” Patterson—who lives in Ross with his wife, Elizabeth, or “Liebe,” a Wellesley biology grad, and their three children ages 10, 14 and 16—is a managing partner at the Mill Valley investment firm SPO Partners.

As for the Academy’s other attractions, they include an undulating two-and-a-half-acre “living roof”; the all-new Steinhart Aquarium, featuring the world’s deepest living coral display; a four-story glass terrarium that has visitors walking through dense habitats surrounded by birds, butterflies and bats; and the new Morrison Planetarium whose brand new 30-minute state-of-the-art exhibit is titled “Fragile Planet.”

How did Patterson, a relative newcomer (“we’ve lived locally for 21 years”), become chairman of one of the Bay Area’s more prestigious boards? “After graduate school, we moved to Ross in 1995,” he recounts, “and spent lots of time outdoors in Marin’s open spaces and at the Bay Area Discovery Museum at Fort Baker.” Family visits led to involvement by both parents and, before long, Patterson was on the museum’s board of trustees where he became board chairman. “After serving six years with the Discovery Museum, and observing firsthand the power of informal, out-of-school learning, in 2003 I was approached to join the board of the California Academy of Sciences.”

He’s never looked back. “The combination of a place focused on research, education and serving the public around life sciences and conservation hit on so many of our interests,” Patterson says. “The chance to be involved in the transformation of an institution from a clean sheet of paper to an up-to-the-minute metropolitan asset and attraction was an extraordinary opportunity.”

You and your family’s love of nature and science obviously connect with the Academy, but where does your Stanford MBA and investment experience contribute? The California Academy of Sciences has a strategy that can be measured for performance and impact. It also has a board of trustees who provide guidance on strategy and oversight and bring relationships and perspective from other experiences to the management of this enterprise. What we have done here is collectively invested nearly half a billion dollars on the basis that we put that capital to work in ways that will have high social return. The Academy is a business, a very complicated and interesting business with a nonprofit educational mission.

In the last ten year process leading to the reopening of the Academy which, to you, were the three greatest challenges? The first happened before I was on the board—that was the decision to take the Academy down to the ground, then design and rebuild from scratch while operating a scaled-down version on Howard Street for three years. That was a really bold and challenging decision. Few institutions could or would do that, but it freed the Academy from old restraints. Also, raising the $488 million was a tremendous challenge. However, ours is an incredibly generous board and the entire Bay Area community of philanthropists has stepped up in an exciting way. A third challenge is one still before us: that is to continue to invest in changing exhibits in a way that makes scientific developments fresh and integrates them into our program. And that will continue to be a challenge because we understand the need to advance scientific literacy in our nation. I am excited about our chances of making an impact here.

What features of the recently reopened Academy personally intrigue you? First, it is the overall light and airy atmosphere the noted Italian architect Renzo Piano incorporated into the new structure. It is certainly not the dark and musty look so often associated with natural history museums. Then there is the considerable daily live programming. An example here is when a biologist enters the two-story coral reef tank to feed fish, he or she will be in scuba gear and, through an underwater microphone, be able to tell visitors what the food is, why fish like it, and other interesting anecdotes. We also think the interaction of thoroughly trained docents—there will be dozens of them on the floor at any one time—will be an exciting aspect of the Academy. This will differ from just looking at a diorama, as there will be easily identifiable individuals to answer questions and discuss the settings with visitors. An exciting attraction will be the four-story, all-glass terrarium we are calling the Rainforests of the World exhibit. It will have living plants and animals and, as visitors walk up a circular ramp, they will see a flooded Amazonian rain forest; a forest floor from Borneo; then a Madagascar understory, followed by a Costa Rican canopy at the top. Then visitors will enter a glass elevator, which passes down through each level to where they’ll exit and experience underwater views of the Rainforest. In truth, the entire California Academy of Sciences enterprise fascinates me, as I am sure it will the thousands and thousands who visit it in the coming years. It represents an incredible accomplishment by many, many people who have every right to be very proud.