BioNTech: the startup that could save the world
Since the second half of the 20th century, the migratory flow from Turkey to Germany has been such that, as of today, the Turkish population residing in Germany exceeds two and a half million people. Such is the migratory relationship that some of the most outstanding creations of recent years are attributed to Turkish immigrants living in Germany. For example, the kebab, one of the most famous gastronomic delicacies around the world, was created in Germany by Kadir Nurman, a Turkish immigrant.
Despite the popularity of this food, Kadir’s success is not comparable to that of Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Ugur was born in Turkey and immigrated to Germany at the age of four. Özlem was born in Germany, although she is the daughter of Turkish immigrants. They met at Saarland University and married in 2002, already working together at that time. This couple, passionate about medicine, exchanged their suits and dresses in their wedding day for their lab coats and dediced to go back to the laboratory.
Today, the couple holds the key to the door that opens the way out of the health and economic crisis that has gripped the world. BioNTech, a startup dedicated to the development of immunotherapies to treat patients with serious diseases, was founded in 2008 in Mainz, Germany. Their research focused especially on the fight against cancer.
From fighting cancer to fighting the coronavirus
How has this startup become the hope of the whole world? This story begins in January 2020. Then, BioNTech was no longer a startup, but a large NASDAQ-listed company. When Ugur came across a scientific article about a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, he was surprised by how small the step from cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines was.
Where most of society saw a threat, Ugur and Özlem saw an opportunity to develop a vaccine that would give the world hope. BioNTech quickly assigned 500 employees to work on several potential compounds and won the confidence of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer as a partner in March.
We recently learned the result, when Pfizer announced the success of a vaccine against the coronavirus in the last phase of the trial. However, who is really behind this glimmer of light is BioNTech. A company that started as a startup founded by a married couple and that has become the developer of the earliest vaccine in history, knowing that the approximate time it usually takes to create a vaccine is around ten years.
Keeping in mind its origins
The most curious aspect of this story is the people behind it. Despite having made one of the 100 largest fortunes in Germany, Ugur remains loyal to his origins as an entrepreneur. The Turkish-German of the moment still goes to business meetings in jeans, backpack and wearing his bicycle helmet.
The BioNTech case is a source of inspiration for entrepreneurs betting on the pharmaceutical sector. It is a sector that requires patience: the process that a vaccine or a drug goes through, from the beginning of research to its launch, is long (the case of the coronavirus vaccine is the exception that proves the rule). However, the results show that sometimes it is worth the wait – who would have thought that Ugur and Özlem would have the opportunity to lead the world out of this crisis?
Fellow Funders has a keen interest in the pharmaceutical sector, considering it a form of ESG investment that brings a great social benefit beyond the business numbers. We have recently successfully closed a funding round with Ikan Biotech. Currently, we are in another PRE-IPO funding round with Laminar Pharma. Maybe someday these startups will follow BioNTech’s path and provide the solution to a global problem…