BionTech's Sean Marett tells the remarkable story of the search for a Covid vaccine.
BioNTech became world famous for developing with Pfizer the first ever approved mRNA-based vaccine. Chief Business and Commercial Officer Sean Marett, who took his MBA at AMBS, shared the extraordinary story at a Vital Topics lecture.
To build any innovation company you have to have motivation, and for BioNTech that motivation was outwardly simple. As Sean Marett told our audience: “Our motivation right from the beginning was the personal treatment of cancer. What we are trying to do is to get the immune system to distinguish between good and bad to destroy cancer cells. If you look at cancer molecularly what you see are mutations. We take these mutations and generate an immune response against them."
But he conceded that late-stage cancer is a “very, very difficult thing to treat” and despite all modern medicine still has high mortality over a five-year period. As such, he said everything the company did was with new technologies because existing technologies may have reached a plateau in their ability to treat disease.
“We use a variety of technologies because you need a portfolio to calibrate treatment to an individual patient. For us, treating some of these diseases won’t be a single product, it will be a combination of products to really destroy tumours.
“Take ovarian cancer. When diagnosed, sometimes the tumour is the size of a small orange. Imagine that small orange is growing exponentially and you are trying to kill it with immune cells. So you either have to get the immune cells to grow at a faster rate than the tumour, and/or attack the tumour from multiple angles, hence different technologies.”
The result, believes Sean, is that over the next 10 to 15 years we will see “much more precise treatments, more combinations of treatments and much more success in our quest for treating cancer”. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will also play a role. “AI is going to help us become more precise, because the immune system is very precise. AI will help us design drugs in a better way.”
Sean was instrumental in raising finance for the company and internationalising the investor base throughout the 2010s, culminating in a listing on the NASDAQ exchange in New York in late 2019. But barely had the company listed on the exchange when it completely changed track.
As he recalls: “Almost as soon as we went public Covid-19 came along and it changed us forever, as we turned the company from cancer to developing a Covid vaccine. The normal approval time and R&D cycle for such a vaccine would have been 12 to 14 years. We did it in just 11 months, and have since gone on to vaccinate about a quarter of the global population in more than 180 countries.”
He conceded that it was a hectic time. “My wife got so fed up with the phone ringing that I had to take calls from governments in the car outside in winter. But this was all part of the spirit and excitement of really doing something novel. That is what I love about innovation. It’s novel by definition and you are never quite sure which way it is going to go, but you have to believe in it.”
Almost as soon as we went public Covid-19 came along and it changed us forever, as we turned the company from cancer to developing a Covid vaccine.
With the immediate Covid crisis over, the company is now renewing its focus on cancer treatments. For instance, in January this year it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK government to test its different technologies in cancer patients in the UK.
Meanwhile Sean added that he looked back with fondness on his time at AMBS, and says he continues to use the learnings from his MBA all the time in his job.
“When you are trying to figure out capex requirements for factories that don’t exist, or how you price a vaccine, or how you estimate cost of goods, or how will you make money to fund research continuously, finance plays an extraordinary role. I will always be very grateful for what I learnt at AMBS.”
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