Heroes and hurdles
Through basic research and the development of immunotherapies, BioNTech aims to improve the health of people worldwide by harnessing the full potential of the immune system to fight cancer and infectious diseases. BioNTech was founded by scientists and physicians to make a lasting difference in people's lives by combining science and its optimal implementation.
The garage in Los Altos, south of San Francisco, where Apple founder Steve Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak developed video games and dreamed of creating a personal computer for everyone, is an oft cited symbol of small beginnings becoming big successes. The two-room apartment in the former nurses’ dormitory at the University Medical Center Mainz, situated on the seventh floor of the rear building, where the heroic story of the university spin-off BioNTech began in June 2008, was not much more comfortable than a garage, and certainly a very humble beginning. The gruelling work of translating a scientific vision into a viable company required all of the strength and energy of BioNTech co-founders Özlem Türeci and her husband Uğur Şahin. Twelve years later, their biotech company was the first to receive approval for a vaccine against the coronavirus. “You have made Germany believe again that it can achieve great things,” praised the German news magazine Der Spiegel. The British daily The Financial Times, named the couple its “Person of the Year“ in 2020. The US magazine Time featured pictures of the two researchers on its January 2021 cover with the headline “The Vaccine Revolution”. On 19 March 2021, in Berlin’s Bellevue Palace, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the two Germans of Turkish origin the Grand Cross of Merit with Star, Germany’s highest decoration. It is recognition for outstanding achievement in biotech and medicine and for an outstanding stock market success story. What did these researchers do better than other start-up founders? Which parts of this blueprint can be emulated? And what lessons should policy makers learn from this success? We will answer these questions in the following four sections. Each section represents a different phase in this extraordinary biotech company’s journey.