Friedrich von Bohlen: Why he invested in vaccine manufacturer Curevac

Friedrich von Bohlen and Halbach

Dr. Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach, nephew of Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, studied biochemistry and holds a doctorate in neurobiology from ETH Zurich. After researching biotechnology, he later shifted this interest to entrepreneurship. He is co-founder and managing director of Molecular Health, as well as managing director and co-founder of dievini Hopp BioTech Holding, which manages the life science activities and investments of SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp and his family.

The portfolio also includes Curevac, on whose supervisory board von Bohlen sits – the company that is one of the pioneers in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine in Germany. Curevac plans to start a phase III study with thousands of test subjects this year, with the results expected in the first quarter of 2021. The vaccine candidate is already being produced in a production facility in Tübingen, and a second is expected to be completed in 2022. Which vaccine will you use to protect yourself against Corona?

Friedrich von Bohlen: I received my first vaccination with the Curevac vaccine two weeks ago, the second will be in two weeks.

The vaccine is not yet fully developed?

of planks: I know the data so far. We see good immune responses. The antibody titers are measured before and after the second vaccination, which serves as a booster. Then we’ll see.

Are you now protected from a corona infection?

of planks: Not yet. In a couple of weeks I can see what the immune response looks like with an antibody test. You will never get 100 percent with any vaccine. Of course there are parameters that tell us when vaccination protection should be in place. Practice will tell.

What was the vision and motivation to invest in Curevac?

of planks: At the end of 2003, I resigned as CEO of my then biotech company Lion Bioscience. Then in 2004 several things happened, including getting to know Curevac. The year began, however, when an old school friend approached me with the request to look at and rate the Italian company Cosmo Pharmaceuticals. I did that, and it is important to mention that because it was one of the reasons I later approached Dietmar Hopp.

How did the meeting come about?

of planks: I had read in the newspaper that Dietmar Hopp bought Heidelberg Pharma out of bankruptcy. If he’s interested in pharmaceuticals, I thought, Cosmo, which I found very promising, might be of interest to him and has asked to meet. We met at the beginning of 2005 and Mr. Hopp invested in Cosmo. Cosmo later went public and has done very well. At our meeting, Mr. Hopp suggested meeting me with his longtime confidante and lawyer, Christof Hettich. Dievini Hopp Biotech Holding emerged in 2005 from our subsequent discussions and plans. Since then, we have invested over a billion euros in 15 companies. Ten of the companies are active, the value of our portfolio today is many times that and still has further potential.

You are one of the managing directors there. This also led to joining the Curevac company in Tübingen. One of the companies in Germany that the eyes are on today, also because the state recently invested 252 million euros there. The share is now worth over a billion euros. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested in 2015. Who came up with the idea that Curevac’s technology could be so innovative and valuable?

of planks: In the middle of 2004 I met the founders of Curevac. Ingmar Hoerr, who carried out the crucial experiments in his doctoral thesis, explained to me the potential of messenger RNA (mRNA) against infectious diseases and cancer. As a biochemist, I know mRNA and its challenges. Until then, it seemed too unstable for therapeutic use. Ingmar Hoerr’s observation and groundbreaking discovery is explained simply by wrapping it in a kind of secure cover, like the way you wrap porcelain in paper when moving so that it doesn’t break during transport. Ingmar Hoerr found a protein for packaging. This allowed him to use mRNA as a vaccine without it being broken down immediately. That was and is awesome.

Did the idea convince you?

of planks: Absolutely! I said to him: Ingmar, either this will be the greatest therapeutic history in medicine, or the whole thing is crap. It currently looks more like the former.

So your vision was to help write this greatest medical history? You are not exactly lacking in superlatives.

of planks: Yes. In my opinion, however, the biggest story is the molecular and digital transformation of medicine. We may come back to that later. Back to Curevac. In principle, mRNA can be used to develop vaccines against almost all infectious diseases and cancers. And also against very individual cancer mutation patterns. Ingmar, his colleagues and I went to the notary at the end of 2004 and reorganized the company legally and economically. I personally invested in Curevac.

When did Mr. Hopp’s investment come about?

of planks: Dietmar Hopp’s premise was and is to invest in German companies. When we started dievini, we began to look systematically for suitable investments. I knew Curevac and was convinced of it. So it made sense to propose the company. It is important to Mr. Hopp to meet and get to know the people involved personally. Ingmar Hoerr and his co-founders came to Heidelberg and we invested several hundred million euros in Curevac. Curevac is listed today and is currently worth around nine billion euros, dievini holds almost 50 percent.

When the founder Ingmar Hoerr has recovered from his current illness, what role will he play in the company?

of planks: Ingmar is the face of the company. He will and must play an important role and position. We will discuss this and determine it together.

Manager magazine attacked you three years ago. The Strüngmann twins, who have also invested more than a billion in biotech, would have made billions out of their investments, they only made losses for dievini Hopp.

of planks: At least the writers of this article don’t understand biotechnology. Completely novel and transformative topics such as mRNA and precision medicine take a long time to be successful. And as an investor, you have to have staying power during this time. dievini is 15 years old today, now we’re seeing the successes.

In 1990, when I was an intern at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Harald zur Hausen had been researching papilloma viruses for years. At the time, some said: Always just papilloma viruses, what does he want with that? In 2008 he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for laying the foundations for a vaccination against cervical cancer. That also took 20 years. How about an investment, do you know beforehand whether it will work?

of planks: No, you never know, an investment is like an experiment. It is important to remain attentive and open-minded, to see the unexpected as an opportunity and to learn from observations and mistakes. For example, a study against prostate cancer at Curevac failed. It was an old phrase, and yet the company was able to learn important lessons from the failure. We looked at the study at the time and believed we saw why it was. Today the data looks good. There are many good examples in biotechnology showing that keeping a cool head and being patient is critical. The cancer drug Herceptin failed in the first phase III study. Then one examined the data and recognized and understood patterns. A new study was started and it was successful. Today, for many breast cancer patients, Herceptin is the best drug for treating their disease.

What gives you the strength for staying power? Do you feel the responsibility as a scion of a dynasty of industrialists, as a descendant of the Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach family? Would you like to leave something to do justice to your family?

of planks: But that is a completely different topic now.

Yes, but it’s still about your motivation for investments. Someone who simply wanted to insure themselves against the funder in a situation of failure of a prostate study at Curevac would probably have ended the engagement. So different motivators, a different vision have to be involved.

of planks: I have a strong sense of responsibility. I do think that I have an entrepreneurial disposition in me. After completing my military service, I thought about studying mechanical engineering. Then I asked myself what really motivates me. That’s why I chose biochemistry. And always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. At the beginning of the 80s, I saw fascinating companies like Biogen and Genentech and knew that I wanted to go in that direction. On the family side, my uncle Alfried, whom I can barely remember, had transferred the company and, in effect, the family assets to a foundation a few years earlier. The family’s assets and rights to have a say had been lost because he was the sole heir to the company in trust. Berthold Beitz, who headed the foundation, was already acting in the outdated way of a squire. I was already convinced at the time that this meant the foundation and the company were on the decline.

Already in the 80s. How old were you there?

of planks: Beginning of the 20th. Berthold Beitz usurped the foundation. All experience now shows that you have to work with and not against the employees. They are the most important asset and shape a company’s culture. Steve Jobs once said that I don’t hire good people to tell them what to do, but rather to show me what to do. During this time you cannot run a company like a galley. If you do it anyway, what happens now will unfortunately happen: Doom with announcement.

… ThyssenKrupp announced this week that they would be open to government aid.

of planks: Despite the 17 billion from the sale of the elevator division at the beginning of the year, the state is called in because the company is operationally wounded and it is currently not clear where it should and can go. But that does not solve the problems for which the foundation is essentially responsible. That never happened in the earlier days of the family, which were often difficult. However, when the foundation was established in 1967, the family was not paying close attention and doing nothing. My cousin Diana, my cousin Eckbert and I said in 1983 that we would not accept that and that we would not just watch this goings-on and then we took action. On the one hand, because we recognized the imminent decline of the company and no longer saw the rights and values ​​of the family being safeguarded. For example, that the family was always concerned about the well-being of the employees.

What should your father’s generation have done differently?

of planks: My father Harald and his siblings were brought up in a fairly sterile manner. They grew up in Villa Hügel, an inhospitable house; each of the seven siblings had their own nanny. There was little common or open communication in the family; instead, hierarchical thinking prevailed. My father, fifth in the sibling row, would hardly have dared to challenge his older brothers. When Alfried, the first-born and sole heir, set up the foundation and, in our opinion, made it quite wrong in terms of craftsmanship, nobody was there to confront him. Alfried was also completely fixated on Berthold Beitz. In this way, Mr. Beitz was able to set up the foundation according to his own ideas, which he then and with it ThyssenKrupp led to the abyss.

In what way?

of planks: That is a very simple economic calculation: In 1974, when the state of Iran participated, Krupp was worth three billion marks. Iran acquired 25 percent for 750 million marks, so the foundation’s share was 2.25 billion marks, i.e. 1.15 billion euros. Today the foundation still owns 20 percent of the company, which is now worth almost three billion euros. 20 percent of this corresponds to an equivalent of almost 600 million euros. That means that Berthold Beitz and the foundation have shrunk assets from 1.15 billion euros to 600 million euros, i.e. halved them. And this at a time when good stewards’ assets double every ten years. That would be over 30 billion euros today. Mr. Beitz and the Foundation are the best example of the joke: How do you get a small fortune? By starting with a big one.

It must be bitter for you and the family.

of planks: Yeah, and it’s disappointing. Fortunately, I have completely different topics and focuses that inspire me. Our investments at dievini have developed very well to this day.

Is that some kind of satisfaction?

of planks: More like confirmation. In the almost 25 years that I’ve been active in biotechnology, I’ve also made mistakes. The idea of ​​combining biotech with data processing and artificial intelligence is correct, but in 1997 we were just too early with Lion Bioscience. Today this issue is in the center of attention. Molecular Health, which I co-founded in 2004 and of which I am CEO, has developed the concept of Lion further. Now is the time for it. And of course it’s also a confirmation to see that the investment in Curevac, which was similarly early and risky, is doing so well.

Does that mean you need a lot of stamina?

of planks: Yes. It took 20 years for these transformative ideas to take hold: precision medicine, drugs based on messenger RNA, T-cell therapeutics, cancer therapies based on programmed cell death, new cocktails against cancer, targeted therapies against neurodegenerative diseases, novel substances for eye diseases, minimally invasive back surgery. Dievini Hopp made these investments between 2005 and 2010. Nobody could predict how the individual companies would develop. I have an inner picture of how molecular biology works in humans that I have always trusted. Because molecular biology is to medicine what mathematics is to physics.

Do you know at the beginning of an investment whether it will work?

of planks: No. We also had to write off some investments at dievini. It was the same with steel back then. In 1790 steel would have had no chance. In 1840 steel was the central theme because the railroad generated so much demand. Those who did not master steel in 1830 came too late.

So it’s the same as it is now with the vaccines?

of planks: If you want, you can see it that way. Why did Krupp start the steel business back then? The only usable steel came from England in the early 19th century. Then Napoleon introduced the continental barrier. Then Krupp said, I’ll make the steel myself. This courage and this foresight were crucial. Bill Gates invested in Curevac with his foundation in 2015, long before Corona. And Dietmar Hopp already in 2005. That is what defines entrepreneurs, the vision of recognizing something big and not losing sight of the goal.

Krupp wrote industrial history with steel. They had the steel available when it was needed.

of planks: Not at first. The founder of Krupp, Friedrich Krupp, died poor in 1826. There was hardly any application for steel at that time. His wife initially continued to run the company and then handed it over to their son Alfred when he was 16 years old. Alfred was motivated and driven. He tried everything that was possible with people from morning to evening. And then in 1835 the railroad came in Germany and with it the demand, and Krupp was there and ready. He had the vision, the patience and the right product at the right time.

There are other vaccine developers such as Biontech, Moderna, Oxford University and many more.

of planks: Yes, these are all valid technologies and approaches. Curevacs is no less good, maybe even better. Curevac has been working on concepts for vaccinations for many years, not entirely dissimilar to how Krupp refined its steel for 20 years and learned from it, initially without a market. The market and technology then converged because one would not work without the other. Knowing that has always helped me and never left me in doubt. The story of steel is in my blood, the vision in my head and the enthusiasm in my heart for biotechnology. And in the end you always need a bit of luck.

What other trends does Friedrich von Bohlen und Halbach see for the future? He reveals that at the Trends Festival – and you can experience him live there.


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