It was always going to be the highlight of Belfast's first EmTech Europe — the two-day virtual conference last week held in partnership with MIT Technology Review — but the contribution by BioNTech founders Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci was revelatory not for its scientific insights but for its simplicity.
Indeed, dealing with the BioNTech team, in the weeks prior to the gathering sans audience in Titanic Belfast, was disarmingly drama-free and ego-lite.
It seems that the titans of European health-tech are a world removed from the high-volume, vainglorious and self-obsessed scions of Silicon Valley.
Husband-and-wife team Dr Sahin and Dr Türeci were beamed in from the BioNTech plant in Mainz, Germany, to talk with broadcaster William Crawley about their breakthrough mRNA Technology which gave us the first approved mRNA-based vaccine to protect us from the Covid-19 disease. Their passion for science shone though as did their belief that mRNA can now be used to combat other diseases.
Both founders are children of Turkish 'guest workers' who came to West Germany in the seventies during the country's post-war economic bom. Outwardly, they seem unfazed by BioNTech's $54bn market cap. Dr Sahin, who famously cycles to work, says he spends his downtime reading mathematics and watching online webinars. While acknowledging that science is her primary hobby, Dr Türeci does enjoy sport to relax — "getting out of my head into my body".
The couple's uncomplicated approach to life — even when dealing with the most complex problems — informed their searching for a Covid-19 vaccine which had to be "elegant and simple".
Similarly, consummate preparedness is a principle of their approach. Dr Türeci approvingly quoted Albert Einstein: "Given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution." She added: "For our team, Einstein's 55 minutes were two decades of research and development."
Addressing the moral mission of BioNTech, Dr Sahin said: "The greatest facet of science is that it is useful. It saves lives and works towards the greater good of humanity."
While EmTech was devoted to a wide range of emerging technologies, including green tech and connected health, the Covid theme was inescapable with contributions from Moderna co-founder Kenneth Chien of Boston and Kevin Nepveux of Pfizer.
Plans to bring an audience of 100 to Titanic Belfast were scuppered when a lifting of Covid restrictions was delayed but conference chief curator Tom Gray felt the event had helped put Belfast on the map as a fast-growing knowledge economy.
"This year MIT Technology Review decided Belfast was of sufficient scale, capability, capacity and respect to be the location for its European event," he said. With plans for the conference to return in live format in 2022 and 2023, the Kainos head technology officer said the region had shown it cold "punch at global weight". "The fact that this year, we attracted a superb complement of speakers is a real mark of trust in Belfast's leadership position as a technology capital."
We are delighted to support the #EmTechEurope Conference which opens in Belfast today and look forward to a great session from David Surplus of B9 Energy on Power-to-X looking at the opportunity for green hydrogen generation locally. pic.twitter.com/XzBIRcb1i7— Phoenix Natural Gas (@phoenixni) July 1, 2021
Hosted, by Aisling Events, EmTech Europe brought together over 50 speakers who are at the cutting edge of innovation. Its sponsors were led by Belfast City Council and Invest NI, Matrix and Tourism NI and included tech firms, Liberty IT, Aflac NI, Unosquare, Neuda-Version1, Rapid7, Kainos and Bazaarvoice. A day-long focus on technologies to battle climate change was supported by Energia Group and Phoenix Natural Gas as well as Belfast Harbour, Belfast Funding and Staffline.