Biotechnology Sector A German Trailblazer Developing Cancer Vaccines

University spinoff BioNTech is developing cancer vaccines tailored for individual patients. If it succeeds, it could revolutionize the way cancer is treated.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNtech in his research lab.

Startup BioNTech only moved into its current company headquarters two years old. Yet the building, located close to Mainz University’s hospital in western Germany, is already too small for the biotech company’s 400 employees, and the 100 more that it is currently recruiting.

BioNTech isn’t a goldmine – just yet. On the contrary, the firm is spending millions, and it doesn’t even have a medicine to market yet. But multinational pharmaceutical companies including France’s Sanofi and America’s Eli Lilly have already paid it visits. That’s because BioNTech founder Ugur Sahin has ambitious plans. The medical professor who never wanted to be a businessman wants to revolutionize cancer therapy by perfecting a personalized cancer vaccine.

Cancer tumors are created by mutations in the cell, and they are different in each person. BioNTech has high hopes for its vaccination method.

“First we  create a type of genetic mug shot of the individual tumor. Then we teach the immune system to recognize the cancer cells,” Mr. Sahin said. “The vaccine tricks the body into believing there is a serious infection and instructs the immune system to specifically destroy the cancer cells.”

The future of cancer therapy will ultimately consist of an individualized therapy. But it first must be proven that these therapies really help the patients. Michael Platten, Neuroimmunologist, national cancer research center


Traditional cancer therapy works like a shotgun blast that also damages healthy tissue, or the method is like a targeted shot that hits only part of the cancer cell, he said. The BioNTech vaccine would be injected into a lymph node and absorbed by the immune system’s dendritric cells. They activate cells that find the tumor and eliminate it.

Mr. Sahin’s hope is that tumor cells in the body will diminish and disappear in a couple of months. The immune system would remain vigilant to prevent the cancer from breaking out again. He also hopes the individually tailored vaccine eventually eliminates the need for chemotherapy, a regimen that almost all patients dread. About 500,000 people in Germany are annually diagnosed with cancer, and half of them die from it.

Cancer immune therapy isn’t new, but so far it has had only limited effects. Innovations have given the therapy a boost in the last two years. Astounding success has been seen with malignant melanoma and certain types of leukemia. However, for most other types of cancer the treatment is only having an effect for 20 percent to 30 percent of patients, since the regimen isn’t tailored to an individual’s specific needs, Mr. Sahin says.

Michael Platten is a neuroimmunologist and professor at a cancer research center based in the Heidelberg. He believes that Mr. Sahin’s approach of individually tailored vaccines holds revolutionary promise.

“The future of cancer therapy will ultimately consist of an individualized therapy. But it first must be proven that these therapies really help the patients,” Mr. Platten said.

Molecular biologist Mario Linimeier, an analyst at the investment consultant Medical Strategy, has a similar view.

“From a scientific point of view, the technique is without doubt interesting and very promising. But what counts in the end is whether it works with the patients,” he said.

BioNTech is in the early, phase-one development of the vaccine. About 30 melanoma patients are involved in the vaccine treatment study. Mr. Sahin said he couldn’t reveal much about the trial but did say, “We are seeing tolerance.”

BioNTech has at least two unicorns worth millions in its stables, Sean Marett, Chief Operating Officer, BioNTech

Based on the as yet undisclosed phase-one results, he says he has decided to expand production. Today, as many as 54 employees work on one individual vaccine. It’s work that machines are expected to do in the future.

“In five years, we’ll have our drugs on the market – at affordable prices,” said Mr. Sahin, who is 50.

“We won’t be the only ones,” he said, but added that BioNTech is leading the development worldwide.

“We are accomplishing pioneer work comparable to self-driving cars. We had the idea 25 years ago, but it has only become technically feasible today,” he said.

Mr. Sahin, who has Turkish roots, and his wife, Özlem Türeci, founded a startup named Ganymed in 2001. Ms. Türeci is a medical doctor and is in charge of the biotech firm, which is working on an antibody against cancer. Investors in Ganymed include German investment fund MIG Fonds as well as Athos Service. Athos is the family office of twins Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann, who made billions through generic drug company Hexal.

When Mr. Sahin told the brothers about founding BioNTech, the Strüngmanns wanted to be involved.

“BioNTech has a pioneering technology. If it works, a new era in medicine will begin,” Thomas Strüngmann said.

In 2008, the brothers invested €150 million, or $166.7 million today, which at the time was the largest first round of financing in Europe’s biotech scene. The twins hold the majority stake in BioNTech, and MIG Fonds is also an investor.

Ever since Mr. Sahin’s method was disclosed in Nature magazine in 2015, he has been in high demand. Pharmaceutical firms would gladly become involved, but BioNTech wants to remain independent – even within partnerships. For that reason, the young company has spun off each of its research initiatives into separate subsidiaries of its own.

“We are a small biotech corporation,” said Sean Marett, chief operating officer.

Mr. Marett, a former Pfizer executive, points to U.S. startups such as Moderna and Juno that are valued at several billion dollars each after only a couple of years.

“BioNTech has at least two unicorns worth millions in its stables,” Mr. Marett said.

The subsidiary Cell & Gene Therapies, for example. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has invested €27 million in it and was given a small share in the company in return. In addition, payments of up to €269 million are planned for every approved drug that Lilly later markets. Moreover, BioNTech is entitled to licensing fees.

Based on the number of employees, the Mainz-based startup is probably the largest research-based biotech firm in Germany, even ahead of Munich-based Morphosys. BioNTech also belongs to the most successful pharmaceutical alliance. The deal with Lilly, as well as agreements with Sanofi and Genmab, have brought in a total of around €120 million in equity capital – and additional success-dependent payments of over €2 billion are included.

Privately-held BioNTech has considerable financial needs, and although going public isn’t out of the question, it’s not being considered at the moment, Thomas Strüngmann said. The brothers would much rather continue to invest. They share Mr. Sahin’s vision of making a major pharmaceutical company out of BioNTech.

No one knows yet whether BioNTech will prove to be a goldmine – or a money pit. Thomas Strüngmann thinks it’s worth the risk.

“If we can contribute to something highly innovative coming on the market in Germany, then my dreams will have been fulfilled.”

Siegfried Hofmann is Handelsblatt's chemical and pharmaceutical industries correspondent. Katrin Terpitz covers companies and markets, focusing on Germany's Mittelstand and family-owned businesses. To contact the authors: [email protected]  and [email protected]