Collaboration, a critical capability.

The rapid development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is a case-study of effective collaboration.

BioNTech has applied new ‘messenger RNA’ technology to carry instructions to human cells that trigger the immune system response for an attack by Covid-19. The resulting immune memory defends against the virus.

Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci are physicians who met in 1990. They founded BioNTech in 2008 with the aim of cancer vaccines that relied on mRNA.

Pfizer provides the manufacturing, regulatory, research and trial management capabilities to deliver this breakthrough solution to patients. The company’s global scale supports a reach and speed to market that a ‘small’ company such as BioNTech cannot achieve alone.

Progressing a theoretical and untested approach to an approved UK vaccine in less than a year is a remarkable partnership success. BioNTech has pivoted from a mRNA focus on cancer and Pfizer has embraced overlapping trials to deliver results in record time. BioNTech and Pfizer share credit.

Partnerships are core to the Pfizer business model. The company is investing $500 million in biotechnology companies and promotes access to Pfizer’s scientific, clinical and manufacturing expertise. The Pfizer Ventures team is investing in more than 50 private companies at all stages of development. Open to collaboration the company shared data from its Covid-19 research with rival pharmaceutical companies that led to a dialogue with 340 potential contributors.

Significantly, the BioNTech collaboration flows from an established working relationship between the two companies to develop an mRNA based flu vaccine. The understanding, comfort and confidence gained from past collaboration cannot be under estimated as a success factor.

BioNTech approached Pfizer’s vaccine expert Kathrin Jansen to see if they were interested in teaming up. Without any discussion the response was yes.

Helpfully, alignment between the two partners goes beyond the imperative of halting a pandemic, with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla seeking to develop a company with “the scale of Pfizer and the mindset of a small Biotech.”

Breakthrough technology from BioNTech and Pfizer’s collaboration model have both been critical to their vaccine success. Both reflect a sustained commitment to capability development. BioNTech have spent a decade developing their mRNA therapeutics expertise. The Pfizer ventures team was founded in 2004.

The pace of technological change is making collaboration an increasingly important capability. Those outside of pharmaceuticals recognising an open culture and partnerships as critical to growth might want to use Pfizer as point of comparison.


This article was founded on two excellent articles which are must reads if the vaccine development journey is of interest: Forbes and Stat.com

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