A biologist in a laboratory of the CUREVAC company, in Baden-Wuerttemberg (Germany), on February 24.

These are three biotechnology success stories made in Germany, announced in the space of a few months, which have revealed the potential until now little known to the general public of this industrial sector in Germany. On October 7, the French Emmanuelle Charpentier, laboratory director at the prestigious fundamental research company Max Planck, won with the American Jennifer Doudna the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the Crispr-Cas9 technology, considered to be a revolution in genetics.

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On November 9, BioNTech, a start-up based in Mainz, released the very first vaccine candidate tested against Covid-19 for the pharmaceutical group Pfizer, raising a global wave of hope that the pandemic would end. And CureVac, another Tübingen-based biotech, also feels well on its way to offering a successful vaccine in the coming weeks.

Gigantic sums

These three major and exciting successes also reveal the mixed fortunes of the German biotechnology scene. On the tails, foreign researchers like Emmanuelle Charpentier praise the freedom of research and the public endowment they enjoy in Germany, notably at the Max Planck Research Institute, nicknamed the “Nobel machine”.

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On the other hand, biotechs made in Germany, unlike Americans, are struggling to find capital to develop their ideas to the commercial stage. The few that emerge are those that have succeeded in convincing US funds or the few German private investors who are strong enough to take the risk. Because in biotechnology, it takes very long years to make a product emerge, the sums to be disbursed are gigantic and the returns on investments are very uncertain.

So it is with BioNTech. Beyond the story of the couple of scientists of Turkish origin, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, who created in 2008 this world-famous biotech, there is also that of their investors. BioNTech owes its existence and mastery of messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) technology to two German billionaires, the Strüngmann brothers. They are the ones who bet the earliest on the talent of the scientific couple and have supported their development for nearly fifteen years.

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Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, twin brothers from Bavaria’s Tegernsee region, made a fortune in 2005, selling their generic drug business Hexal to Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis for 5.6 billion euros. Since then, they have devoted their fortune to financing biotechnology companies. In 2007, they learned that the Mainz company Ganymed, founded by the Türeci-Sahin couple, had run out of funding. The biotech is then working on a cancer treatment technology, which seems promising, but is not yet complete.

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