BioNTech has emerged as one of the pandemic’s greatest success stories, spotlighting the disruptive nature of startups in finding solutions to societies’ biggest challenges. What began as a small, German biotech startup committed to transforming medicine, soon catapulted into a global pioneer in the Covid-19 race to vaccine discovery.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented burdens on healthcare systems around the world. A record number of startups pivoted to cater to these challenges, dedicating time and resources to support end users along the health continuum. BioNTech is one such startup that quickly decided to shift beyond its cancer research to focus on Covid-19 immunotherapy. A few months down the line, BioNTech discovered the technology behind the first ever Covid-19 vaccine. Its path to the vaccine discovery exemplified the flexible and proactive ability of startups – a classic startup success story.
Founded in 2008 by power couple Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, children of Turkish immigrants to Germany, BioNTech specialised its research on mRNA immunotherapy for cancer patients. “Messenger RNA” molecules trigger the building of proteins in cells to stimulate the immune system to prevent or fight disease. BioNTech, at the time, had yet to develop a single approved product from its mRNA and immunotherapy technologies – until Covid-19 hit.
As the pandemic quickly spread across borders, Dr. Sahin recognised the urgency to act. In January of 2020, BioNtech stepped up and pivoted its research to use mRNA technology to combat the Covid-19 virus. By March 2020, BioNTech had joined forces with American pharma giant Pfizer, to co-develop and supply the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine – which became available for commercial use by the end of 2020. This partnership managed to develop, test, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year – a scientific triumph for the global healthcare research community and a lasting example of how corporate-startup partnerships can be key to carry out innovation quickly and effectively!
With humble beginnings and a massive commitment to saving lives, BioNTech’s story represents the impact of startup innovation. With the expected rollout of 3 billion Pfizer-BioNTech doses by the end of this year, this vaccine continues to provide a lifeline in Covid-19 recovery and a massive step towards returning to a ‘new normal.’ At Allied for Startups, we aim to create a policy landscape that allows startup innovations such as BioNTech to thrive. Our membership of innovative digital health startups are consistently developing solutions to advance the digital transformation of health and care. We encourage EU policy-makers to consider startup perspectives and help reduce barriers in digital health innovation.