Dr. Albert Bourla’s Commencement Speech

Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer, gave the commencement speech after receiving his Honorary Doctorate Degree from the Technion

Thank you, President Sivan and the entire Board of Governors for conferring upon me this honorary degree. It is a great honor to be a part of the Technion Institute community.

To all of today’s graduates — congratulations!

As a scientist and a Jew, I can’t overstate how much it means to me to receive this degree and to be invited to address this year’s graduating class.

Since first opening its doors in 1924, the Technion has been a beacon of light not only for Israel, but for the entire world. The story of the Technion, like that of my company, Pfizer, is a one of innovation, but also of courage and optimism – all of which have helped give birth to technological and scientific breakthroughs aimed at making the world a better place.

Researchers at the Technion have driven advances in alternative fuels that are helping mitigate climate change. Professors Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko’s Nobel Prize-winning work in ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation led to a better understanding of human health. And the Technion’s first-of-its-kind collaboration with Cornell University is pursuing breakthroughs in the areas of connective media, health technologies and urban engineering.

But none of these successes would have been possible without courage and optimism – the courage of Paul Nathan, who endeavored to establish a university in Israel that would improve the lives of Jews while they were largely banned from studying scientific and technological subjects in Europe … and the optimism of Dr. Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein who refused to let the school die after the financial difficulties brought on by World War I.

Innovation, courage and optimism are three things that define my colleagues at Pfizer, as well. It took courage, for example, to make the counterintuitive decision to use mRNA technology in the COVID-19 vaccine we developed with BioNTech. This courage not only helped us deliver a safe and effective vaccine in only nine months, but it may also prove to be an important step in unlocking the great promise that the technology holds for many other therapeutic areas, including cancer and rare disease. Our successful vaccine journey showed us we can make the impossible possible – and our colleagues are now taking this newfound optimism to their work in other areas.

If you are anything like I was on my graduation day, you are thinking about all the hard work it took to get you to this day. But guess what … that was the easy part. There was a curriculum and you did what you needed to do to complete it.

What makes the next chapter more challenging – but also more exciting – is there is no set curriculum. The next chapter is all electives – and your choices will define your future.

Now, I can’t tell you what choices to make because we are all different people from different backgrounds with different circumstances. What I can do is share a few simple truths I have learned along the way that might help you make choices that are right for you – and that just might help you change the world (or at least your little corner of it).

First, setting extremely ambitious goals that are seemingly impossible based on conventional wisdom does not restrain human ingenuity, it liberates it. That’s why you should always aim high. If you aim for incremental change, you may improve upon something someone else has done, which is great. But it’s only when you aim for step changes – aim to do the seemingly impossible – that you can unlock the full potential of your creativity, discover completely new ways of solving a problem and deliver true breakthroughs.

Of course, aiming high does not guarantee you will hit your target. The truth is the first time you pursue an ambitious goal, you are more likely to fail than to succeed.

This brings me to the second truth: Resiliency is as important as getting it right the first time. Our failures can teach us even more than our successes. So, when something you set out to do doesn’t go as planned, don’t choose to walk away and give up; rather choose to find out why it didn’t work and let that knowledge inform your next attempt. That’s how the world moves forward.

The third truth I will share is that optimism is infectious. I learned this from my parents – particularly my mother – and it has been one of the key ingredients in inspiring my colleagues at Pfizer to shoot for the moon and make the impossible possible.

ד"ר אלברט בורלא (מימין) עם נשיא הטכניון פרופ' אורי סיון

Technion President Prof. Uri Sivan (left), with Dr. Albert Bourla, Chairman and CEO of Pfizer 

Of course, with our world facing several threats – war, the pandemic and racial hatred, to name just a few – you may find yourself asking: “How can we feel optimistic in a world that feels so dark?”

There are many reasons to be optimistic, including …

Human ingenuity. Humans have a proven ability to solve problems, and the convergence of advances in digital technologies and biology have us poised to make significant progress in the battle against disease.

Human compassion. As I was reminded again during my visit this week to Yad Vashem, the compassion of those who helped Jews escape the Holocaust was awe-inspiring and can be seen today in those welcoming refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.

And human courage. There’s that word again. It’s a powerful thing to have the courage to try something new, to challenge the status quo, to speak out against injustice. And even the smallest acts of courage can have a transformational impact on our world.

I will close with a quote from the man many have called the greatest philosopher of all time – the namesake of the university from which I proudly graduated – Aristotle – who said:

“Excellence is never an accident. It represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice not chance, determines your destiny.”

As you approach the many alternatives that lie ahead in your journey, always remember to aim high, be resilient and remain optimistic in all you do. If you do, you just might be surprised with what you can accomplish – and the lives you will impact.

Thank you again for inviting me to be a part of this celebration. I wish you all tremendous success.

Congratulations and good luck.

To watch the film on Dr. Bourla we aired at his Honorary Doctorate Conferment Ceremony on June 30, 2022, click here (a subtitled film is also available):