BCG Henderson Institute

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In early 2020, when scientists rushed to develop a vaccine to take on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it seemed like a really long shot. The fastest a vaccine had ever previously been developed was for mumps, back in the 1960s—an effort that took 48 months. Still, just nine months later, in December 2020, the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and a German deep-tech startup, BioNTech, had developed the first COVID-19 vaccine, validating the use of the new technology of mRNA-based vaccines.

The first studies on DNA vaccines began 25 years ago, and the science of RNA vaccines too has been evolving for over 15 years. One outcome was mRNA technology, which required the convergence of advances in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, and has transformed the science—and the business—of vaccines. Pfizer generated nearly $37 billion in sales from the COVID-19 vaccine last year, making it one of the most lucrative products in the company’s history.

Like Pfizer and Moderna in the pharmaceuticals sector, several corporations in other industries—such as Tesla in automobiles, Bayer in agrochemicals, BASF in specialty chemicals, Deere in agriculture machinery, and Goodyear in rubber—are relying on deep technologies. Deep Tech, as we call it, is the problem-driven approach to tackling big, hairy, audacious, and wicked challenges by combining new physical technologies, such as advanced material sciences, with sophisticated digital technologies, such as A.I. and soon, quantum computing.

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