As we are in a second lockdown here in the UK, I’ve decided to post an “Inspiration of the Month”, featuring inspirational individuals who have gone above and beyond to help others during these unprecedented times.
This “Inspiration of the Month” goes to…a co-brand!
Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin of BioNTech
As the whole world knows, German company BioNTech and the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced earlier this week that their vaccine candidate had surpassed expectations in phase 3 trials, proving 90% effective in stopping people from becoming ill with Coronavirus. The spectacular results have firmly placed BioNTech/Pfizer as the frontrunners in finding a cure for a disease that has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide.
Enter the Power Couple behind BioNTech
The powerhouse behind BioNTech is married couple Ugar Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Sahin was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. His family moved to Cologne, Germany when he was four, during which time his parents worked at a Ford factory. He followed his dream of becoming a doctor and became a physician at the University of Cologne. Early in his career, he met Türeci, the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated to Germany from Istanbul. She had aspirations to become a nun but instead went to medical school.
The two medical students followed almost identical routes, combining a medical degree with a doctorate: For Türeci, it was molecular biology, Sahin, immunotherapy. They met in the early 1990s, when they discovered a shared goal to create cancer therapies.
In 2001, Sahin and Türeci founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed drugs to treat cancer.BioNTech was then founded in 2006. The couple sold Ganymed for $1.4 billion in 2016. Last year, BioNTech sold shares to the public; its recent market value has rocketed past $21 billion. They are now one of the richest couples in Germany.
The couple had become friends with Albert Bourla, the Greek chief executive of Pfizer. In recent interviews, they had bonded over their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants. “We realized that he is from Greece, and that I’m from Turkey,” Sahin said. “It was very personal from the very beginning.”
In Germany, and in many countries, immigration continues to be a fractious issue. This was captured by member of Parliament, Johannes Vogel, who tweeted that if it was up to “Alternative for Germany”, a far-right party, “there would be no #BioNTech of Germany with Özlem Türeci & Ugur Sahin at the top.”
Shared passion and purpose
Commenting on the couple’s similar passions, Türeci shared “We found that our academic fields were complementary. So we married them, and each other.”
Even on their wedding day, the newlyweds made time for work and returned to the lab after the ceremony.
Their shared sense of purpose and commitment to a vaccine began two years ago with the prophetic words of Sahin, who made a bold prediction at a conference in Berlin; he announced to a roomful of infectious disease experts that his company might be able to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic using its “messenger RNA technology”.
Work on the Covid-19 vaccine was initiated in January, after Sahin was convinced by an article in the medical journal The Lancet that the Coronavirus would rapidly become a full-blown pandemic. The couple cancelled vacations and got working on what they called Project Lightspeed.
“It could be the beginning of the end of the COVID era,” Sahin said.
In addition to their work ethic, modesty is a clear value shared by Sahin and Türeci. Despite being multibillionaires, the duo plan to continue working on mRNA vaccines targeting cancers including prostate, ovarian, and pancreatic types. The couple could be just a few years away from developing individualised cancer therapies, a dream of theirs since 1991.
“Ugur is a very, very unique individual,” Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive said. “He cares only about science. Discussing business is not his cup of tea. He doesn’t like it at all. He’s a scientist and a man of principles. I trust him 100%.”
The scientist billionaires live with their teenage daughter in a modest apartment near their office. They do not own a car and instead ride bicycles to work.
Sahin and Türeci learned about the efficacy data last Sunday night and celebrated their achievement by brewing Turkish tea at home.