Two centuries ago, Friedrich Krupp, a struggling German inventor and would-be industrialist, was not yet 40 when he died in debt, leaving behind a wife, four children and an unrealised dream.
It fell to his son Alfred Krupp to harvest the seeds he had planted and lead a revolution that saw imperial Germany steal Victorian Britain's steel crown with the Krupp family on the throne.
Two centuries on, what remains of the Krupp steel empire is dying by degrees, smothered by mergers and mismanagement. But a new revolution is under way, expedited by the Covid-19 pandemic, and once again a Krupp heir is at its heart.
Dr Friedrich von Bohlen, five generations on from his Krupp namesake founder, is a leading investor in medicine technology who is pivoting away from generalised, off-the-shelf drugs to made-to-measure treatments.
The new frontier of cancer treatment, away from chemotherapy to immunotherapy, was the first stage, but the pandemic has triggered warp speed. With little fuss or fanfare, German scientists at BioNTech and Curevac have created two of the leading next-generation Covid-19 vaccines.
BioNTech, based in Mainz, was first out of the starting gates, followed by US company Moderna. Curevac, with Friedrich von Bohlen as a major investor, is expected to follow in the coming weeks. "Exactly 200 years ago Friedrich Krupp believed that the steel era was coming, he didn't know when exactly but he used his time wisely and had his failures so that when the demand came he was ready to react," Dr von Bohlen told The Irish Times. "BioNTech, Moderna and Curevac wouldn't have been ready now with their vaccines so quickly if they hadn't spent years researching, collecting experience."
At the heart of these three breakthrough vaccines is a new approach using so-called messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). Given the world now consists of those who understand mRNA and those who don’t – how does Dr von Bohlen explain this breakthrough to the uninitiated?
“We’re at a stage now where we can measure precisely the reason for your illness – cancer, for instance, what kind of mutations – and develop an mRNA cocktail that tells your own body precisely which proteins to produce to protect them or fight the illness,” he says. “The diagnoses are as precise as the treatment is specific to the patient. By comparison, chemotherapy for cancer is like an atom bomb, that just destroys a lot.”
Long before he studied biochemistry and neurobiology Dr von Bohlen traces his interest in science back to his childhood fascination with adventurous journeys through unknown territories like the planet’s poles or the Northwest and Northeast Passages, expeditions that mostly were not successful.
By the 1980s, his pioneer spirit was intrigued by the first biotech companies, scientific expeditions without maps or safety nets. In 2004, he read about how German scientist Ingmar Hoerr had, by accident, discovered a way to make stable already-known mRNA technology. A door to a new era of medical treatment lay ajar, but the German scientist had no money to develop the research further.
Until, Friedrich von Bohlen marched into his office, interrupting a presentation he was making, to announce: “If it’s even halfway right what you claim, you could revolutionise medicine.”
What happened next is history: Dr von Bohlen flagged Curevac with German billionaire Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of software giant SAP, and together they bankrolled further research.
Looking back 16 years later, the German investor says he was electrified by Ingmar’s simple trick for making the mRNA stable so it could be injected without being attacked by the body.
“If I make it stable, I have a blueprint for everything,” says Dr von Bohlen. “I can produce every protein in the body, I can do it quickly and cheaply. I knew: if this works, it’s a revolution.”
While many claim to be the father – or mother – of the mRNA revolution, Dr von Bohlen insists that Curevac and Ingmar Hoerr provided the real breakthrough.
A series of dramas last year saw Curevac overtaken by BioNTech and then Moderna. With European approval likely later this month or early next, Curevac says it has used the extra research time wisely. Its vaccine is easily stored in a regular fridge and less of a diva than BioNTech’s deep-freeze requirements. Dr von Bohlen is philosophical about the delay.
“The mRNA age has just begun and it’s completely irrelevant who is ahead today,” he says. “Of course there is the pride element, and I have huge respect for the [BioNTech] Mainz team but the markets for infectious diseases and oncology are so large that BioNTech, Moderna and Curevac will all be successful.”
A cloud appeared on the horizon recently when Katharine Tai, a trade representative with the Biden administration, backed a proposal to waive patent protection to expedite the rollout of affordable Covid-19 vaccines.
The idea quickly gained traction – even Pope Francis was in favour – but EU leaders pushed back. After quiet conversations with the founders of BioNTech and Curevac, chancellor Angela Merkel – and other EU leaders – pushed back against the idea. Manufacturing capacity, distribution and others' (read the US) refusal to export vaccines were a greater impediment to the global battle with Covid-19 and its variants, they argued, than the cost of patents and licensing fees.
Given the millions he has invested in Curevac, it’s no surprise that Dr von Bohlen agrees. It is the promise of patent protection, he says, that ensured vaccines were developed and rolled out at warp speed by private companies, not the state.
“Germany’s post-war constitution says that human life is inviolable, I’d say the same about intellectual property,” he said. “You could ask yourself why America, the greatest protector of intellectual property, comes now and says let’s pause patent ownership. For the first time in biotech history, two of the three [successful] firms are not from the US. I smiled a little bit [when I heard it]. If the firms were all American I don’t think we’d have had this proposal.”
And yet the push for affordable HIV medication has shown the difference when companies are encouraged – even forced – to roll back their licence fee earning expectations. Would Dr von Bohlen oppose to any such shift on licensing fees for Covid-19 vaccines?
"Personally speaking I'd be ready to give a licence at no cost for a time if someone came from, I don't know, Mongolia, and would like to produce for that region," he says. "Not for all time but for the particular purpose I would consider."
While others are focused on mRNA-based victory over Covid-19, Dr von Bohlen's attention is already in the future. Another of his companies, Molecular Health, aims to be a major player in the multibillion molecular medicine field, thanks to its database that analyses and records, at molecular level, biological process in the body to match illness to targeted medication.
The hope: faster diagnosis, medical trials and treatment of illness. Listen to him talk and it’s clear he believes that – in the near future – today’s standard medical treatments could go the way of the leech.
There is serious US competition on molecular medicine, and doubts in other quarters about how promising mRNA-based treatments will be. But Dr von Bohlen is quietly confident that his homeland can hold its own in this race if it can harness the energy and innovation that saw German-based companies develop two of the three leading Covid-19 vaccines.
“I think German politicians are rubbing their eyes at the moment, asking themselves, ‘how could this happen?’,” he laughs.
Last year, Berlin paid €300 million for a minority stake in Curevac, now worth many times that. Does he see such public investment as the way forward for private research?
“No. What I find super about [Germany’s] investment in Curevac, though, is that, for once, German politicians are investing in a firm with a great future in the future instead of a firm with a great future in its past.”
Just how much of a role Germany Inc will play in the new medical frontier depends, he says, on whether the country can make a leap beyond what he sees as its prolonged, defensive post-war mentality.
Compared to 19th-century industrial founding fathers like Krupp and Siemens, Dr von Bohlen says West Germany's post-war decades were defined by rebuilding and then guarding prosperity. Political leaders prioritised wealth redistribution and, while he supports this in principle, he is less enthused when it throttles wealth production and attacks investors like him as "locusts".
Beyond a mentality shift, staying in the mRNA game requires a leap, too, in how Germany finances the kind of multimillion innovation pushed by Curevac.
“There is no shortage of young people with good ideas in Germany. There’s a shortage of equity to bankroll them,” he says. “We could create incentives for people to invest 5 per cent of their taxes in firms that fulfil certain future criteria – transformative technologies like renewable energy or biotech.”
With years of informed investor gambles under his belt, Dr von Bohlen is cautiously optimistic that his homeland has hit a tipping point. After a stumbled start, Germany’s vaccination programme is now in top gear with over one million people daily getting their jab. At 58, Dr von Bohlen opted to try his own Curevac jab – even without full approval – and says he is feeling fine.
“I wish Germany would loosen up: you win some, you lose some, others win some,” he says. “Failure is an intrinsic part of a success culture. Success without failure is luck and, while I wish everyone luck, success with failure along the way: that is a strategy.”