Scientists Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci have dedicated their whole lives to the field of oncology and infectious diseases. Both have spent years pioneering personalised immunotheraphy treatments for cancer. The powerful couple have been hailed the “dream team” after their company BioNTech helped develop a vaccine with pharma firm Pfizer which could bring an end to coronavirus.
The couple’s groundbreaking research in the field of modified genetic code has propelled them into the public eye – as the brains behind the world’s first effective coronavirus vaccine.
1. The couple founded BioNTech in the western German city of Mainz in 2008
Both Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci founded a small German biotechnology firm BioNTech in 2008. The husband and wife team have Turkish roots whose parents both migrated to Germany. Together with US giant Pfizer, they are developing the leading candidate in the worldwide chase for a vaccine.
2. Prior to BioNTech, the pair established Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001
Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are both trained physicians. They established their previous company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001 to work on developing cancer-fighting antibodies. And eventually selling it for $1.4 billion in 2016.
3. They both have Turkish roots whose parents migrated to Germany
Ugur Sahin, the chief executive of BioNTech came to the country when he was 4 years old and his father got a job at a Ford plant in Cologne as a member of the “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker) generation of migrant workers – many of whom ended up staying in Germany.
Tureci on the other hand, the BioNTech’s chief medical officer is the daughter of a Turkish doctor who emigrated from Istanbul. Sahin met Tureci when the pair were both embarking on their academic careers. They both bonded over a shared passion for cancer research. According to Reuters, the couple even made time for lab work on their wedding day.
4. The billionaire couple are listed among Germany’s 100 richest people
Chief Executive Sahin and Chief Medical Officer Tureci are listed among Germany’s 100 richest people, according to the weekly Welt am Sonntag newspaper. Last week, the market value of their Nasdaq-listed company jumped to $25.72 billion — a massive leap from $4.6 billion last year.
But the couple’s charitable ethos and longstanding commitment to academia and science appear to have kept them grounded. The couple told CNN they felt compelled to “provide something for society,” given the work they had done in their field over the last two decades.
5. Ugur Sahin has been described as a modest and humble person by colleagues
Sahin has been described as a “modest and humble” person by colleagues, including a fellow oncology professor at Mainz University, who has worked with him for two decades. Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable.
A colleague even said he is a calm and measured man who is more interested in reading scientific journals than checking the company’s share price. He added that Ugur Sahin would typically walk into business meetings wearing jeans and carrying his signature bicycle helmet and backpack with him
6. Ugur Sahin took the small step to develop the vaccine after reading a scientific paper about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China
After reading a scientific paper about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Sahin was taken by the “small step” from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines.
BioNTech assigned 500 of its staff to work on the project with several potential mRNA compounds, eventually closing a partnership with Pfizer in March.
7. BioNTech teams have put their work on cancer on hold, focusing on developing the vaccine
BioNTech teams have since January put their work on cancer on hold, focussing their efforts on the fight against Covid-19. They called the project as “Speed of Light” where they cooperate with Pfizer to ramp up production of their vaccine candidate and that they hope to manufacture up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.