Founded in 1906 by Cesare Serono, the company's initial growth was due to their product, Bioplastina, which, by the 1920s, was selling at a rate of over 1,3 million boxes a month. Pietro Bertarelli - the grandfather of Ernesto and Dona Bertarelli - had been with the company since its early days and was, by 1935, its Managing Director and he oversaw the expansion of the company's production lines.
1949 was a landmark year, with Serono purifying gonadotropin, a hormone that promotes the stimulation of the ovaries to produce multiple follicles, and this in turn resulting in a fertility-enhancing drug called Pergonal®. In 1963 its active ingredient was adopted by the World Health Organization as the international reference standard. Improved and enhanced in later decades, Pergonal became the platform for the international expansion of Serono led by Fabio Bertarelli, who became Chief Executive in 1965.
In 1974, Fabio consolidated the ownership of Serono and soon after, to escape the chronic political and social instability of Italy at the time, moved the company to Geneva, Switzerland. Serono then grew into an international company with a U.S. subsidiary, Serono Laboratories, in Boston. In 1978, the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in Manchester, England, with help from Pergonal®. Sales of the drug skyrocketed and Serono's expansion continued.
In 1996, Ernesto Bertarelli succeeded his father as the head of the company and drove forward its research in biotechnology. His sister, Dona, joined him soon after and together they saw Serono enjoy a string of clinical and commercial successes throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Rebif®, a recombinant form of beta interferon used to treat multiple sclerosis. Rebif® went head-to-head in trials conducted by Serono against the then market leader, Biogen's Avonex®, and succeeded in breaking its American orphan drug exclusivity.
During Ernesto Bertarelli's tenure as CEO, the company's revenues, and profits grew substantially, with the company growing to the extent that it was operating in over 40 countries, with its products sold in over 90. In response to this commanding growth, in 2000 Ernesto oversaw the quotation of the company's shares on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2006, the company was acquired by Merck to form Merck Serono, after which the Bertarelli family moved onto new ventures.