From big data to the big blue, this scientist-turned-entrepreneur has found success at every turn. Charlotte Hogarth-Jones catches up with the owner of Indigo to discuss family and marine conservation
It’s been a rather unusual first season for 46-year-old entrepreneur Chris Bouton and his new Westport 112, Indigo. When we speak, the Covid-19 crisis is fast approaching its peak. Bouton is holed up at his main home in Newburyport, Massachusetts, while his yacht – which he’s only taken out a couple of times since chaos descended – is more than a thousand miles away in West Palm Beach. Nevertheless, he remains pragmatic. “I think, if anything, these recent events highlight some of the things that I really believe in – paying attention to the natural environment, and understanding our role in the proper shepherding of it,” he explains.
A neuroscience PhD by training, Bouton is clearly passionate about the life sciences. In the early days of his career, The Human Genome Project (an international project to map all human DNA) was just finishing up. “It was the first time we could really study biology using computers,” he enthuses. “Suddenly, there was this new tool that was fundamental to our research – and I think my interest in data has always been just an extension of my interest in science.”
Bouton is referring to his first business, Entagen, a software company that developed big data integration and analytics solutions, which he sold to Thomson Reuters for an undisclosed sum in 2013. Today, he’s a man with fingers in many pies – he’s currently the CEO of Vyasa, a venture that he launched in 2017, which builds software for deep-learning AI-powered data analysis; he’s developing a social app called Yodelay where friend groups can communicate with each other, featuring no ads and focused data privacy; he operates a property management company called Heron House Properties that manages residential and commercial real-estate holdings in Maine and Massachusetts; and he also designed and built the ForestHouse Art Car, an art project that he made with friends for Burning Man, which is now hired out as a one-stop events shop. And then there are the many boards he sits on, from hospitals to banks to shark conservation. Bouton is a man whose counsel is often sought and highly valued.
So, did this scientist-turned- businessman enjoy the career switch? “You have no idea whether you have a business brain or not until you try it,” he says. “I just happen to be lucky that when I tried it, there were a lot of things about it that I loved.”
He likes the uncertainty of being an entrepreneur that many find difficult, he explains, and he enjoys the sort of long-term thinking that’s required.
“I love building complex systems, and I can’t imagine a more complex system than a company,” he says, yet his method for doing business is surprisingly simple. “Business of any scale is about trust and a handshake,” he says. “It could be a really big deal, or just doing someone a favour, but ultimately everything is operated on trust.”
Looking back at Bouton’s childhood, perhaps it’s not surprising that his career has followed the path it has. He spent his formative years between the ages of four and eight in New Delhi, where his grandparents produced medicine for illnesses such as malaria and smallpox and provided them to local villagers as part of their missionary work in India. His mother, Barbara, grew up in the subcontinent and then worked as an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs, while his father, Marshall, is a political scientist who most recently was the executive director of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“I remember those years more than the ones that followed just after it, because it was such a wonderful time,” he recalls. “It was an amazing, vibrant place, and I think it really helped to foster that sense of exploration that I had early on. It’s part of the reason that we love being on the boat, right? Because we can go to a completely new place every day.”
The Westport isn’t, in fact, Bouton’s first boat. He has a couple of smaller craft: Iris and Katana, a Key West and a Scout 355 LXF. But the 34-metre Indigo is a different beast, and one that he both charters and uses for trips with friends and family.
“We arrived at the Westport 112 because it’s such a tried and true boat,” he says. “It’s really comfortable, and we wanted a yacht that would work well in the Bahamas and the whole Caribbean island chain – having something that could tuck up into relatively shallow bays was important to us.”
In the end, the decision was based on instinct, he says – a far cry from how his first car was chosen. “It was based on a total agony of decisions,” he laughs. “Pros and cons columns, pieces of paper, different calculations... I bought that car, and man, I absolutely hated it! I didn’t enjoy a single minute.” Since then, he’s always gone with his gut.
Indigo is fresh from several months of refit work. “It was really fun to add some of our own design language to the boat,” Bouton explains, citing in particular how they’ve tracked down traditional indigo dyed and patterned fabrics from all over the world, including Japan, Indonesia, India, Africa and South America. “It’s kind of amazing to learn about the full history of indigo. There was a time when the dye cakes were called blue gold and were traded in the US as currency,” he says. Why the blue theme in general? “To me it goes back to the colour of water – there’s nothing more beautiful in my mind than flying over the Exumas and seeing all those different shades of blue. It’s just gorgeous.”
There’s a sense that Indigo is a family project. “Our boys, Camden and Aidan, are 10 and 13 right now,” Bouton explains, “and [my wife and I] realised that there’s only a limited amount of time that we can do this with them. To have these incredible experiences together is invaluable, and there’s something really special about them being able to do it on their own boat, in their own beds.”
It’s often said that you view the world differently through a child’s eyes, and Bouton can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to yacht as a family.
“Were they excited? Oh, yeah!” he laughs, “extraordinarily. I just love watching them discover all these amazing things about what it means to be on a boat. They can be standing on the dive platform, watching a nurse shark swim by, and for them it’s a completely magical experience every time.”
Could he ever imagine a period spent entirely at sea, Swiss Family Robinson-style? “We’ve definitely talked about that,” he says. “Honestly, this whole quarantine situation has made us think about it, because now they’re doing virtual schoolwork anyway. It’s certainly helped us imagine the possibility.” And, he adds, they’re exceptionally lucky. “The boys are fantastic travellers. We’ve made a concerted effort to take them around the world from very young ages to expose them to different cultures, from Peru and Italy to Japan and Ecuador. Cam was swimming with giant sea lions in the Galápagos when he was just six years old, happy as a clam.”
There’s another reason, though, why Bouton was so keen to get his own boat rather than charter, and it stems from one of his key passions. “It’s really hard to find charters that will let you scuba off the back of the boat, but you can scuba off the back of your own boat any time you want!” he laughs. Diving is important to Bouton – he’s a self-confessed shark obsessive.
“I think you’re either a shark kid or a dinosaur kid, and for me, it was always sharks,” he says. “I’ve basically never lost that fascination.” These majestic creatures have been around for approximately 450 million years – that’s longer than trees have existed, he says, to put it in context. “They are animals that are so attuned to their environments. They have this aura of grace, power, elegance and beauty that’s just so hard to define. They deserve our respect and our protection”
Bouton has dived all over the world to see the creatures he loves in their natural habitat, and was particularly taken when he witnessed more than 30 individual great white sharks while diving at Guadalupe Island off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. That experience led him to take a seat on the board of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, where he helps to raise awareness about the species and also other issues that arise. In areas such as Cape Cod and Maine, for example, there’s been a resurgence in the number of seals – something that’s luring more great whites to the area. “There’s a really important conversation that’s happening about how we can preserve this natural marine habitat for them, which humans also want to use,” he says. “And of course, these animals don’t recognise boundaries in the way humans do – there are literally no borders for them – so we have to think about how to protect them.”
Bouton is clearly highly conscious of the human relationship with the natural world, and he practises what he preaches. He’s the founder of GreenYacht, an impact fund that strives to foster three principles that yacht owners can adhere to: achieve 100 per cent carbon offsetting; eliminate single-use plastics on board; and promote marine ecosystem awareness and conservation. They might seem relatively general points, but as he sees it, “there’s this amazing marine ecosystem that we’re all riding around on top of. Understanding what’s in it, and how to protect it, is a really critical part of enjoying being out on the ocean.” Indigo, of course, abides by all three.
This ethos also extends to Bouton’s private paradise, Johns Island, an 11-hectare private island situated in Johns Bay, near Boothbay in Maine, which was formerly owned by 1920s boxing legend Gene Tunney. The island is “completely off-grid”, as Bouton puts it. Power is from the sun and wind, and water comes from four drinking wells. There are five secluded beaches, and the children happily paddleboard and play there, as Chris and wife Katie imagined they would do when they first saw the property.
It’s the perfect place, one might think, to leave business behind – but old habits die hard. “A lot of sea glass washes up, so I’ve created a pretend company called Sea Glass International for the kids,” Bouton laughs. “I’ve developed a whole pricing system based on the colour of the glass and the amount of it. The kids go out and collect it and I pay them for what they find. Really, it’s just a wonderful way to get them out exploring in this very beautiful place.”
For now, the boat is tantalisingly out of reach, but Bouton plans to get Indigo back out in the Bahamas before too long, and eventually up to Maine. There are no plans afoot for a new addition to the fleet yet. “We’re very aware of the fact we’re relatively new to all this, so for now we’re just focusing on having as many wonderful experiences as possible,” he says. “For a while anyway, we just want to soak it all in.”