Quercus Investment Partners cofounder and CEO Diego Biasi
It could be said that the 2008/9 recession, which saw the deception hiding the true state of the financial sector exposed, was a blessing in disguise for Quercus Investment Partners cofounder and CEO Diego Biasi.
After the markets crashed, leaving the financial sector in a state of uncertainty, Biasi, who moved from Italy to the UK in pursuit of a career in the finance industry, along with his late partner, Simone Borla, who had a background in hedge funds, entered the fledgling renewable-energy sector, with Quercus Investment Partners’ first project being in Italy.
Biasi notes that the partners entered the renewable-energy space as, economically, it is an asset-based buisness with long-term predictive stable returns and the renewables market is not correlated to the rest of the market. Socially, he says, the industry is a good opportunity to improve the environment.
“As with many in our field, we felt fed up with the smoke-and-mirrors activity,” says the 41-year-old with more than 20 years’ experience in investment banking and finance.
On entering the renewables sector, Biasi notes, partners learned at the start that the industry presented a twofold opportunity. “On one side, we could create a profit by investing in the sector and, on the other side, we could do something good for the environment.” As such, he says, there is a common underlying rationale between renewable energy and philanthropy.
Quercus Investment Partners, which was officially founded in 2010, offers advice to investors interested in allocating funds to renewable-energy infrastructure projects related to wind, solar and biomass.
“We build and operate the infrastructure for between 15 and 25 years. At the moment, the company’s projects are based in Europe. Now we are looking at countries beyond the borders of Europe, especially in Africa – for example, Moroco, South Africa and Egypt,” says Biasi, noting his interest in Iran and other countries in the Middle East.
“There is great potential in the African continent because of the lack of renewable-energy infrastructure available and the demand for energy in general,” he comments, noting that renewable energy is probably the best way to support Africa’s energy demand because it is environment friendly and cheaper than fossil-fuel-based power generation.
Biasi does highlight uncertainty in terms of investing in South Africa, owing to the debate around the country’s nuclear energy programme. This, he says, “is everything except environment friendly”, highlighting that the waste that is left behind after nuclear energy production is very expensive to dispose of and bad for the environment, should a leak occur.
“Starting a nuclear power plant these days isn’t ideal for the environment or a country.”
He points to Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear programme and all its nuclear power plants and to focus instead on developing renewable-energy projects. “At the moment, Germany is one of the biggest renewable-energy producers in Europe. I don’t see why other countries shouldn’t follow their example.
“Renewable energy in South Africa probably hasn’t had the support it should have. Hopefully, the approach from government will improve and it will realise that the only future for energy lies in renewables,” emphasises Biasi, who has, for the last six years, been active in the renewable-energy sector and enjoyed much success.
With his business doing well, he established the Quercus Foundation in 2014 to contribute to projects that significantly improve the lives of children, with a focus on healthcare.
“I always wanted to do something more concrete for others in need in terms of money or support,” Biasi explains, adding that his philosophy is that business should be about caring.
This was a bitter-sweet accomplishment as Biasi and his partner, Borla, had intended to set up the foundation together. However, with their business bustling, the partners kept postponing the establishment of the Quercus Foundation and Borla passed away last year owing to lung cancer.
“So I found the time to set up the foundation in his memory – to keep him alive.”
Deciding which charity to assist was not easy; the project had to check certain boxes. But, when presented with hundreds of possible projects, the list fell away. “I was trying to find a project that had the best link with my business partner and the project that most did that was called Breatheasy, started by Sister Jane Booth at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
The Breatheasy Tracheostomy and Home Ventilation Homecare Programme is focused on buying specialist breathing equipment for children that have had tracheotomy surgery, specifically a mobile machine that allows children to live at home with their families instead of being confined to hospital indefinitely.
Breatheasy, which has been operating for 22 years, also trains these families to care for the children at home to significantly improve their quality of life.
Biasi has now dedicated his business acumen for a second time to raise £1.8-million (R37-million) to contribute to the expansion and upgrade of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
The donation, accumulated through fundraising efforts, will go towards a new postoperative surgical wing for the hospital’s chronically underresourced PICU for children who have undergone complex cardiac, neonatal or neurological surgery, as well as the treatment of trauma, burns and respiratory cases. Four isolation units will be developed, reducing the risk of cross infection for children with compromised immune systems.
The R37-million will go towards the overall R100-million expansion of the PICU, which will see the 22-bed capacity increased to 39 bed spaces.
“The reason for selecting the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital was simple: the demand for a bed has reached critical levels,” says Biasi, adding that the PICU serves nearly two-million children in the Western Cape, yet there are only 35 intensive care beds in the entire province, with 22 of those at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.
The Quercus Foundation always works through local partners. In this case, it is the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital Trust, which is the charitable organisation that fundraises for the hospital.
“However, the spirit with which I set up the foundation is broader than helping just one entity and the mission of the foundation is to support children living in poverty and/or in need of special medical care, regardless of where they are.”
As such, Biasi notes that he is looking at other projects to increase the portfolio of the organisation beyond South Africa, even in more economically advanced countries in Europe, adding that he would like to do something in the UK as he has lived almost half his life in London, “where my success was made possible”.
Born in north-east Italy, near Venice, Biasi has lived in the UK for more than 18 years and moved to the country for two reasons.
The son of secondary school teachers, he studied economics at university in the 90s when most people dreamed of working for an investment bank in London, one of the biggest financial centres in the world.
His second reason for moving, however, he says, was more practical. At the time, a year-long military service was mandatory in Italty. “I thought this was a waste of time and the only way to escape that was to find a permanent job before the age of 24,” Biasi notes. So he “sped up” university by a year, graduating at 23 with a degree in economics from Ca‘ Foscari University, in Venice, which enabled him to secure a job in London.
“I grew up in a small village, Treviso, which nowadays has 5 000 people, in the province of Veneto, where I lived with my parents and brother until I started university in Venice at 19.
“The influence of my parents has been import-ant. They have always been very considerate to people who are less fortunate than us. My family was never rich – we were middle class. What they taught me was to try to do something for people [by] offering money or my time, regardless of whether it was to my benefit,” he explains.
“My mother still volunteers every day at the local hospice.”
Biasi’s first philanthropic act, independent of his parents, was at 16, when he joined a group that accompanied sickly people who also sought redemption.
He attributes his success as a businessperson and philanthropist to always seeing his parents work hard at any time of the day, as well as to his passion to succeed and his commitment to his job.
“One thing I have learned over the years, especially in the last year, is that, if you approach everything you do with big passion and com-mitment, you always exceed the amount of effort and commitment you budgeted on . . . philanthropy is an addictive activity.”