Financial History 140 Winter 2022 | Page 29

A Shot to Save the World

The Innovators Behind the COVID-19 Vaccine

By Gregory Zuckerman
Ugur Şahin was sweating . It was early October 2019 , and Şahin was standing in a parking lot in Kansas City , Missouri , under a blazing midafternoon sun . Şahin and a few colleagues had spent weeks crisscrossing the United States and Europe , trying to drum up interest among investors for BioNTech , the German biotechnology company Şahin had started .
The trip wasn ’ t going well . Şahin had explained to the investors that BioNTech was developing vaccines and treatments to combat various cancers and infectious diseases . One of its approaches was to use a molecule called messenger RNA , or mRNA , to carry instructions into the body , enabling it to ward off illness . The company needed money from an initial public offering to continue its research . The investors liked Şahin . He demonstrated an impressive breadth of knowledge , reciting data and citing obscure research papers . They also liked his ambitions for BioNTech and how it planned to system could be taught to fight disease , and he had spent more than two decades of his life researching how to make it happen .
Soft- spoken and serious , he wore smart business suits to the investor meetings rather than his usual T-shirts . An opencollared dress shirt allowed a glimpse of a Turkish amulet around his neck .
Şahin had close-cropped hair , thick eyebrows , and brown eyes that were big , just like his ears . Some investors had done research on Şahin and knew he was a bit different from most other biotech executives . A 53- year- old immigrant from Turkey , Şahin lived in a modest apartment in the German city of Mainz . Each morning , he bicycled to BioNTech , which he ran with his wife , Özlem Türeci , who also was a cancer researcher .
As impressed as they were with Şahin , though , the investors had qualms about his company and its approach . BioNTech had been around for eleven years , but it wasn ’ t close to an approved vaccine .
Just one drug was in a medium-stage , phase 2 trial , and only 250 patients had ever been treated with the company ’ s vaccines . Researchers around the world had spent decades trying to work with mRNA without much progress . Some healthcare experts thought the idea was pure folly , suggesting BioNTech was wasting its time . And it was an awful time to sell shares — the stock market was under pressure , biotech stocks were wilting , and few investors wanted to pay a lot for a German company with few signs of success .
Standing in the parking lot , his ear to a cell phone , Şahin spoke with yet another investor , trying to gauge his interest in BioNTech . Şahin looked tired and tense . Finishing the conversation , he told his team that the investor would only buy shares if BioNTech reduced the price it was proposing Şahin and his colleagues had a decision to make . Their choices were ugly — they could scrap the company ’ s
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