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Exclusive: Meet The Harvard Professor Who Became A Billionaire Thanks To Coronavirus

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THE CHANGING FORTUNES OF THE WORLD’S RICHEST

Harvard biology professor and serial entrepreneur Timothy Springer saw promise in a fledgling biotech firm a decade ago and made an early investment. Now, primarily as a result of that bet — on a Cambridge, Massachusetts company called Moderna — he’s a billionaire. 

Shares of Moderna, which has a Covid-19 vaccine currently in human clinical trials, rose more than 12% this week, bucking the overall drop in the stock market. That surge has turned Springer into a billionaire: Forbes estimates he is now worth $1 billion based on his 3.5% equity stake in Moderna and stakes in three smaller biotech outfits.

“My philosophy is investing in what you know, and I’m a scientist at heart. I love discovering things,” Springer, 72, told Forbes. “Many scientists start companies but few are successful. I’m an active investor and also a very rigorous scientist, and that’s why I have a very high batting average.”

On Tuesday, Moderna announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked its Covid-19 vaccine candidate, giving a boost to the firm’s effort to develop the first vaccine for the disease. Moderna was the first company to begin human trials of its vaccine, on March 16 in Seattle, and the company’s shares have nearly tripled in value since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11. The breakneck growth had already led to one other Moderna billionaire — CEO Stéphane Bancel, now worth an estimated $2.1 billion. 

Besides moonlighting as a billionaire biotech investor, Springer is a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, where he began teaching in 1977 and currently mentors post-doctoral students in his lab. In his research as an immunologist at Harvard, Springer discovered lymphocyte function-associated molecules, which led to the development of several FDA-approved antibody-based drugs. His first foray into entrepreneurship came in 1993 when he founded the biotech outfit LeukoSite, which he took public in 1998 and sold to Millennium Pharmaceuticals a year later in a deal worth $635 million; Springer got about $100 million of that in Millennium shares.

Springer was a founding investor of Moderna in 2010, when he put about $5 million into the company. Now, a decade later, that initial investment is worth nearly $870 million. But long before Covid-19 had emerged onto the scene, Springer was already thinking about how the company’s groundbreaking mRNA technology could help in the development of vaccines.

“We had the idea very early on that it could be used for pandemic readiness,” says Springer. “That’s why we invested in doing human trials with different influenza types, the types that are not normally seen in epidemics but could emerge and start a new pandemic. We were aware of this kind of scenario all along.”

While Moderna may be Springer’s most high-profile bet, he’s also a leading investor in three smaller publicly traded biotech upstarts: Selecta Biosciences, Scholar Rock and Morphic Therapeutic. In the cases of Scholar Rock and Morphic, Springer is also a cofounder, helping build the companies out of his scientific research at Harvard.

Unfazed by his newfound wealth, Springer still rides his bike to work every day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he conducts research at his lab. His only luxury, Springer says, is his home. “I like gardening and collecting rocks…I don’t need the money. I have an academic lifestyle.” 

He’s also using his fortune to give back to the scientific community: In 2017, he donated $10 million to establish the Institute for Protein Innovation, an independent nonprofit dedicated to researching protein science and helping biotech entrepreneurs realize their ideas.

“I like active investing, but I also very much like active philanthropy,” says Springer. “My motivation behind [the Institute] is not only to help develop new reliable antibodies that scientists around the world can use for biological discovery, but also, it has new technology that will just allow many more discoveries to be made. It’s the type of science that is difficult to do otherwise in academia.”

The Harvard professor isn’t the only member of the three-comma-club whose wealth has been boosted by the battle against Covid-19. Some healthcare billionaires’ fortunes have risen by billions of dollars since the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11. The biotech rally could keep gathering pace as the public eagerly awaits new developments in the fight against Covid-19.

For his part, Springer is optimistic that the biotech sector will continue its rapid growth even once the pandemic is gone. “Before, we were vilified as charging too much for drugs…but now, everybody is quite aware that biotech is coming to the rescue,” says Springer. “Biotech holds great promise for new drugs, and the faith in biotech is justified.”

Giacomo Tognini, Forbes Staff, Covers Billionaires.

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