Powerful lessons on starting and growing a business from a pair of reluctant entrepreneurs.
“If the question is whether we can stop this pandemic with this vaccine, then my answer is: Yes.“ - Ugur Sahin
On the 9th of November came the bombastic announcement. There is a vaccine against Covid-19 that is 90% effective. The big company in the headlines is Pfizer. Donald Trump of course quickly claimed that it was him who was behind the vaccine, and accused the company of delaying the announcement in order to hurt his bid for the presidency.
However much of the research and development of the vaccine was done by a small German company called BioNTech. This medical start-up was created in 2008 by Ugur Sahin, Ozlem Tureci, and their colleague Christoph Huber.
Sahin and Tureci are a husband and wife team from Germany, but of Turkish immigrant origin. Sahin was born in Turkey and moved to Germany as a small child. Tureci was already born in Germany, but her father had emigrated to the country from Istanbul.
You could term the trio as a group of reluctant entrepreneurs. The founders of the company always thought of themselves as medical researchers first. They only created their company in order for the wider world to benefit from their research. In the process, they got really, but really rich.
For Sahin and Tureci, BioNTech was not their first company. In 2001, they founded Ganymed Pharmaceutical, which was a company that focused on cancer immunotherapies. In 2016, they sold it Astellas Pharma, a Japanese company. This deal made them instant billionaires.
However, their main baby is BioNTech, a spin-off that they created in 2008 in order to focus on more innovative treatments of cancer. They grew the company quite rapidly, and their leadership put it in a position to develop a vaccine that could stop the current global pandemic. The treatments that the company is planning to roll out could revolutionize the world of medicine.
Create a core competence and use analogical thinking
The reason why BioNTech was able to produce a Covid-19 vaccine so quickly is because it had profound expertise in a unique technology. This technology allows it not only to create new ways of treating cancer, which is the field it was originally specialized in, but also to apply it for other medical problems. One of these other applications is the creation of vaccines.
The technology is inspired by the body itself. Through millions of years of evolution, the human body had developed unique capabilities to solve problems. DNA functions as the instruction manual to create messenger RNA molecules (mRNA). These are then used to create various types of proteins, the building blocks of life. This process serves as the basis of the human immune system’s ability to fight off viruses and other dangerous pathogens.
Long ago, some researchers had realized that if this process were to be replicated synthetically, you could turn the body into its own drug factory. The idea is simple. If you have the ability to create your own mRNA, then you can create any type of protein you want. These can be different types of enzymes, or antibodies for all kinds of viruses.
However, the problem was that in all the different early trials that were held to test this insight, the body rejected these synthetic mRNA molecules. Most scientists turned their back on the idea, and the few that were still working on it had a hard time getting funded. The breakthrough came when researchers Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman replaced one of mRNA’s nucleosides with a tweaked version. With this change, the body no longer put up a barrier to these synthetic mRNAs.
Step 1: Create a core competence
The paper describing this process came out in 2005. In the meanwhile, Sahin and Tureci were working in their first company, Ganymed. There, they focused on various types of more traditional treatments for cancer, but were quite interested in the promise that synthetic mRNA could bring. While the 2005 paper went mostly unnoticed in the wider scientific world, Sahin was one of the first to see its significance.
He realized that with its findings, he could finally fulfill his secret dreams. The couple decided to sell off their first firm to a Japanese company, and focus on the promise of this new technology in the treatment of cancer. When they founded BioNTech in 2008, the mRNA platform was to be what they based their research and products around.
BioNTech is an immunology company which has the synthetic mRNA platform as its core competence. A core competence is something that a company is really good at, and that gives it an advantage in the marketplace. In a cult article from 1990, business researchers C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel described how cultivating a core competence is crucial for success.
One example that they give is that of 3M, a company that was able to leverage their competence with sticky tape into a wide variety of products:
“Consider 3M’s competence with sticky tape. In dreaming up businesses as diverse as Post-it notes, magnetic tape, photographic film, pressure-sensitive tapes, and coated abrasives, the company has brought to bear widely shared competencies in substrates, coatings, and adhesives and devised various ways to combine them.”
BioNTech’s expertise in the mRNA platform gives it unique insights that it can utilize in the marketplace to roll out new types of treatments in different areas.
Step 2: Use analogical thinking
The key to be able to use your core competence in a variety of contexts is analogical thinking. This was at the root of why Sahin was able to leverage his mRNA work to create a vaccine for Covid-19. The professor realized that his company’s mRNA platform could be adapted for a variety of fields. The work that BioNTech did to create anti-cancer mRNA drugs could be modified to create anti-viral vaccines with only a few tweaks.
The ability to use analogical thinking is what is behind the success of innovators such as Steve Jobs. The founder of Apple could see a toaster and use that as inspiration to create his computers. Larry Page and Sergey Brin used an analogy from their academic work (citations) to create the search engine that became Google. Every entrepreneur that wants to successfully grow their business needs to be able to master this type of thinking.
In an analogy you usually have two things that you are comparing: two systems. One that you know well, the source system. And another one where you want to apply this knowledge, the target system. The 3 things that you need to do is: map, apply, and learn. You take what you know in your source system and apply it in your target system.
Ugur Sahin had a good knowledge of using the mRNA platform for cancer. This was his source system. He noticed that something similar could be done for viral vaccines, the target system. What happened next was the mapping and application.
This wider application of a core technology then leads to a more generalized learning, which strengthens the core competence of the company. BioNTech is slowly acquiring the ability to rapidly apply its mRNA platform in different contexts, allowing it to develop a variety of different types of treatments for all kinds of diseases and other medical problems.
The creation of the Covid-19 vaccine serves as a successful proof of concept, which could mean an explosion of mRNA technologies appearing in disparate scenarios. According to Frank Rosa, who is the chief technology officer at another medical startup, the upside is huge:
“The potential for mRNA therapies is simply huge.“
BioNTech, with all its knowledge and experience is well placed to take advantage of these developments. All this due to the fact that it is learning to apply its core competence in different areas.
Constant learning gives you a comparative advantage
In January 2020, Ugur was reading a scientific journal, when he came across an article that described the outbreak of some sort of an unknown disease in China. Scanning the news, he immediately knew what it meant. A global pandemic was coming. In the evening he told his wife, and they decided to re-orient the work of the company towards producing a vaccine.
This is the relative strength of Sahin. He loves reading, and he is constantly doing it. During his free time, his head is buried in scientific journals. However, he is not only reading, but always thinking about how he can apply what he reads to his work.
Many years before, coming across the findings of Katalin Kariko helped him improve his mRNA platform. He later even hired her for his company. Reading a medical study on the events in China early into the outbreak, allowed him to act fast. As they say, luck favors the prepared mind.
This constant quest for knowledge, and ability to see the applications of what he learns, give Ugur Sahin a visionary view for his company. This vision is what allowed him to grow his company so fast, even despite the fact that it was not making any money.
Find a problem you want to solve
What makes it all easy for Sahin and his wife is that they found a problem that they want to solve, and they dedicated their life to it. Their company is just a by-product of this passion. It gives them a purpose, which creates their personal drive.
Sahin revealed in an interview that work for them is fun.
“We are thoroughbred scientists. We love our work, and we love talking about it. Work is never stress for us, something we try to catch a break from.”
This primary drive to create medical breakthroughs that would benefit humanity also gives Sahin and Tureci a different mindset. One that proved to be at the right place at the right time.
The thing about Sahin is that he isn’t really interested in the money. He does it for the research. As a young guy, he dedicated himself to solving the problem of cancer. The traditional therapies weren’t always working, and he set out on finding new, more effective ones.
Unfortunately, often the research that could be beneficial to the wider world, doesn’t make it out of the university laboratory. The bigger companies don’t pick it up. There is a disconnect between research and commercialization. Sahin knew that if he wanted to make a real difference, he would need to apply his research for real. That’s why he started his two companies.
Sahin saw a hole on the market. Based on the short-sighted strategies of the large players, he smelled that the time was right to bring in a new way of looking at things. The big pharma firms usually only focus on research that is guaranteed to rake in the big bucks.
When old incumbents become too focused on guarding their acquired rights, and not enough on innovating and going with the times, time is ripe for what business researcher Clayton Christensen called “disruptive innovations”. This is when a small, new market player comes in with a new way of doing things. This is exactly the case of BioNTech.
Create the ability to test multiple ideas at the same time
In an interview with a German online magazine, Ozlem Tureci stated that you should always actively seek out situations where you fail. According to her:
“The search for innovation is an ongoing process of trial and error. We don’t just accept that as something that happens and from which we learn: We actively seek these situations. Basically, I believe that such an approach helps you in many areas not only to overcome setbacks, but to turn them into something positive.”
Only through failure will you learn what works and what doesn’t. This is the philosophy that Sahin and Tureci implemented at their company, and one that many wise philosophers have preached throughout the millennia.
The pandemic period really showed the strengths of the couple’s vision. In order to create the vaccine, Sahin created a project he dubbed “Lightspeed”. The goal was to develop a vaccine to the virus as soon as possible. They started off with 20 potential candidates, and narrowed it down to 5. These five they then tested more closely.
Their competitors usually proceed by selecting one candidate and working on it. By having a wider pool of potential candidates, Sahin’s company increased its chances of hitting one that works. This reflects on a fundamental way their company functions.
Early on into their entrepreneurial career, Sahin and Tureci realized that if you want to succeed, you need to hedge your bets. That’s how BioNTech is run. They deliberately built up the company’s ability to do that. This is also the strategy that they used in order to develop the vaccine.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but instead you should have several tracks running. This creates the ability to test multiple ideas at the same time. This is a strategy that is implemented in different ways in various sectors. For example, website developers like to use A/B testing, where they test multiple versions of the website at the same time. They then pick the one that engages the visitors the most.
Personalization leads to better solutions for customers (patients)
According to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey, the prime driver of success in marketing in the next five years will be personalization. The company Salesforce defines personalization as:
“Personalization is the act of tailoring an experience or communication based on information a company has learned about an individual.”
The trend for tailoring solutions to individuals is becoming stronger and stronger. At the beginning of the 21st century, when the internet was taking off, all the ads that you would come across were static. Everyone saw the same ads. However, marketers were starting to work on creating the advertiser “nirvana”, a world where everyone sees personalized ads, ones that are based on their own needs and preferences.
We live in such a world now. Many companies are working on customizing and personalizing experiences. While this trend has its positives and negatives for the internet, in medicine this is all positive. Sahin and Turekci founded BioNTech in order to offer personalized solutions to each patient.
They saw that each patient suffers differently from cancer. The normal treatments are all standardized, which means that they don’t always work effectively for all patients. However, if these treatments were personalized according to patient needs, then the success of recovery from diseases could drastically improve.
While most big pharma companies are concentrating on standard one-size-fits-all solutions, the married couple wanted to roll out personalized solutions. This was the unique vision that started their company. If this vision is achieved, it could lead to better treatments for patients.
Find stable partners you trust
One important lesson that you can spot when looking at how Sahin and Tureci run their business is that they value trust. As a husband and wife, they have found the ideal situation to steer their company. However, this type of pattern can be found all throughout their business.
When they started their first company, Ganymed, their chief investors were a pair of brothers, the Strungmanns. When they founded their second company, it was once again the brothers that they turned to. This is a key lesson. Find stable partners that you trust.
They also created a strategic partnership with the giant pharmaceutical Pfizer. The idea is to combine the core competences of the two companies in a mutually beneficial partnership. BioNTech has the research and the technology, while Pfizer brings in the money, manufacturing ability, and legislative know-how.
This partnership with Pfizer was key for the rapid development of the vaccine. The cooperation between the two companies was set up really quickly, because they already have a long-standing relationship. One project that they had been cooperating on is the development of an influenza vaccine. While in most cases partnership agreements take a long time to negotiate, it took only one call from Sahin to his friend at Pfizer to set up the development of the Covid-19 vaccine.
It’s all about being consistent and persistent. You need to understand who the right people are, and then stick to them. This helps you to build structures much faster and without hiccups. These stable partnerships based on trust are a key pillar of BioNTech’s success.
These types of partnerships also buy you time. For Sahin, time is something that is more valuable than money.
Keep in mind what you can and cannot control
Ancient wisdom is often the best wisdom, because it’s time tested. That’s why ancient philosophers like Epictetus still inspire people even two millennia after their death. The Stoic philosopher’s biggest lesson was to focus on what you can control, and don’t worry about the rest.
In her interview, Tureci echoed the ancient philosopher’s thoughts:
“A principle that repeatedly proves to be timeless for me here is to identify which things we really cannot change and to accept them. In return, however, the determination and the courage to concentrate on the things that are in our sphere of influence - it is often bigger than you first think.”
Keep in mind what you can and cannot control. The take-away is to focus on things that you can change. According to Tureci, this is often bigger than you first think. In another interview, Sahin elaborated a similar insight, and talked about a technique that he uses when trying to define the risks, and to convince investors.
“Show that this is what you know, and define the unknowns.”
Whether he is aware of it or not, Sahin applies the so-called Rumsfeld Matrix in his work. This tool comes from a famous remark that the then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered during the US invasion of Iraq in the early 2000’s. It has proven quite useful in project management. You define the known knowns, the known unknowns, and keep in mind that there are also the unknown unknowns. The last part is always the most dangerous.
Not knowing things is a standard part of any entrepreneurial journey. Sahin always reminds everyone that visionary products take time.
“In my first conversations with BioNTech investors, I told them this is not the usual type of company to invest in, because we will probably not have measurable results, at least in the sense of something that’s really great, within 10 years.”
For Sahin, it is crucial to be honest about the risks. Not only to the investors, but also to yourself. As another visionary, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman said, it is important not to fool yourself. You are usually the easiest person to fool. Always keep that in mind.
How to apply
While there are some specificities that apply only in the pharma, biomedical, and life sciences sectors, many of the lessons from Sahin and Tureci can be used in the wider business world.
Here are some of the top business lessons from the entrepreneurial journey of the husband and wife team. Their work could stop the current pandemic, and maybe help revolutionize medical treatment in the future. All the while making the couple billions of dollars in the process.
Find a problem you want to solve.
Create a core competence and use analogical thinking.
Constant learning gives you a comparative advantage.
Create the ability to test multiple ideas at the same time.
Personalization leads to better solutions for customers.
Find stable partners you trust.
Keep in mind what you can and cannot control.
A shorter version of this article originally published on “Medium” here. The version above is longer and covers more points.