Thinking BIG in Biotech

New foreign investors in German biotech star BioNTech are expecting big ­breakthroughs in cancer therapies through the development of individually-­tailored vaccines; rapid growth is anticipated.

March 2019

Think Big is the motto of Ugur Sahin, founder of the German biotech company BioNTech, and he certainly seems to be practicing what he preaches. BioNTech’s revolutionary new cancer treatment that uses individually-tailored vaccines to protect the immune system is attracting a lot of attention and investment. In particular, as the German business daily Handelsblatt noted at the start of 2018, “U.S. investors are betting on the German biotech star.”

Mainz-based BioNTech has been bankrolled for the past decade by the former owners of the generic drugs company Hexal, Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann. In January, the Strüngmann brothers made a fresh commitment to the company in its latest “Series A” financing round, where they were joined by American investment houses Redmile, Invus, and Fidelity, and Janus Henderson Investors from the U.K., among others. Raising an impressive $270m (€225m) in fresh capital, it was the largest Series A round of financing ever offered to a German biotech company and one of the largest in Europe. In total, the company has secured close to $950m in investment since it was founded in 2008.

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Immunotherapy developments

The company’s vision is predicated on using the biomolecule RNA (known as the “messenger molecule”) to develop individualized cancer therapies. BioNTech is now clinically testing four immunotherapy products and at least two more will be added by the end of 2018. San Francisco’s Redmile Group is one of the leading Series A investors. Its co-founder, Mike Lee, has singled out what he describes as BioNTech’s “impressive immunotherapy pipeline based on strong scientific publications” as being of particular ­value. His insight signals BioNTech’s intention to intensify competition with its closest rival Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is also investing a lot of capital in RNA research. “We see ourselves in a scientific leadership position and want to go at least as fast as the Americans,” says BioNTech’s COO Sean Marett.

With a valuation estimated between €2bn to €2.5bn, BioNTech is one of Germany’s highest-­rated biotech firms. It is also Europe’s biggest unlisted biotech company employing close to 700 people. Marett has also hinted that the company plans to go public at some point in the future. “Inevitably,” he says, “in the end we will IPO just because of the size and the capital demands required by individualized approaches to treatment. You have to invest enormously in manufacturing.”