The Yin and Yang of Progress
2020 has been a year with devastating consequences: More than one million people worldwide have died from COVID-19. Millions have lost their jobs as well. In many countries, social life has come to a standstill. Nevertheless: Many people, companies and social groups are meeting the pandemic with remarkable discipline, flexibility and solidarity. As a result, measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance have reduced the number of cases. However, these efforts have not yet defeated the virus.
But there is hope of ultimately overcoming COVID-19, thanks to the tireless effort of the scientists engaged in research toward a vaccine at an unprecedented level of intensity. We can now venture to assume that this work will succeed – and more quickly than even the most optimistic observers dared to hope. Two of the global sources of hope are the vaccines developed by the German biotech companies Biontech and Curevac.
The results achieved by the researchers are of incalculable value, and rarely has literally the whole world watched so intently and waited so eagerly for scientists to issue their reports. Of course, one key requirement for that success is funding. The vaccines on which so many hopes now hang would have been inconceivable without the investors behind these companies: Dietmar Hopp for Curevac, Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann for Biontech.
A Stroke of Luck for the Industry –
and Far Beyond
These three investors share a history as entrepreneurs: The Strüngmann brothers built Hexal into Germany’s second-largest manufacturer of generics, while Dietmar Hopp was among the founders of SAP. These achievements alone would have sufficed to earn them a place as beacons of hope – particularly in Germany, where such stories are all too seldom experienced.
But Dietmar Hopp and the Strüngmanns were thinking farther ahead. They have been working successfully for many years as patrons, donors, and venture capitalists – and were among the few in this country who have dared to invest considerable sums in biotechnology. This is a stroke of luck within that industry – and as we now know, far beyond it.
Companies and sponsors that invest in the research and development of active ingredients can never think solely in terms of business management. They must also be prepared to grapple with technology. The Strüngmann brothers cover both aspects: Andreas studied medicine, Thomas business administration. Together, they epitomize the recognition that both are always necessary: science and industry, ideas and financing – the yin and yang of progress.
We may well be contemporary witnesses of one of these breakthrough moments when science flings open the door to a new world. And this is about more than COVID-19. This is because the two vaccines, from Biontech and from Curevac, both function according to the same novel mechanism of action, namely messenger RNA. This carries the assembly instructions for the body to make a virus protein that triggers the buildup of the desired immune protection. The vaccines against the coronavirus are demonstrating for the first time that this technology works. In the future, it could be used to fight against many diseases. Biontech, for example, works primarily on therapies for cancer.
There are still many open questions regarding this technology, as well as regarding the vaccine against COVID-19. Nevertheless, we should recognize the partial victories of the past year and draw the right conclusions:
1. The Potential of the Bio Revolution
In laboratories around the world, we are seeing scientific successes that formerly seemed inconceivable. Advances in biology, in cell and gene therapy and in artificial intelligence – what experts call the Bio Revolution – have the potential to transform the economy and society in general and to contribute to overcoming global challenges, from pandemics to climate change. In fact, the scientific battle against COVID-19 – especially the speed with which experts sequenced the virus’s genome – is closely linked with these technologies. Biontech CEO Ugur Sahin, announcing the positive Phase III data, spoke of “a victory for innovation, science and a global collaborative effort“.
2. The Importance of Health
Rarely has the value of health been so much a part of our individual and collective consciousness as in the year 2020. We became acutely aware that health is the prerequisite for practically everything that we take for granted, even getting together with friends or traveling for a vacation. Our experience of the pandemic and of the scientific measures to combat it now holds the opportunity for a new perspective. In the past, we often viewed innovation in the healthcare sector merely in terms of their cost. From today’s perspective, we should also regard them as investments in the quality of life and economic well-being.
3. A Wake-up Call for Europe
My hope is that the success of Biontech and Curevac, to which state subsidies also contributed in 2020, is changing our way of thinking in Germany and Europe. In the past, we often lacked an understanding of biotechnology and a consistent political framework for promoting innovation. “It is astonishing,“ Andreas Strüngmann once said, “that relative to its economic performance, Germany invests so little in new technologies. Ironically, biotechnology – one of the key industries of the future – lags far behind.”
In 2019, 860 million euros of equity capital flowed into the biotech industry in Germany – compared to nearly 50 times as much in the United States. When German biotech firms go public, they often don’t do it in Germany. Both Curevac and Biontech chose Nasdaq instead. As proud as we may be that two German companies are frontrunners in the global race for a vaccine, we must also recognize that without Dietmar Hopp and the Strüngmann brothers, they would never have had a chance in Germany.
If truth be told, this comes as no surprise. Just a few weeks ago, Emmanuelle Charpentier of France was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. She once investigated the fundamentals of this technology in her homeland. Its commercial applications are now found primarily on the East Coast of the United States. Europe must be cautious not to deteriorate into a museum of technology, while others create value.
According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, we need three things to endure the cares and woes of life: hope, sleep, and laughter. At the end of a year in which there was little to laugh about and COVID-19 probably caused many to lose sleep, we now have good reason to hope that at least someday our lives may return to normal. We should not forget whom we have to thank for this hope: the researchers who have worked so tirelessly – and the investors who believed in them.