Immigrants behind a quarter of German start-ups, new study finds

Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, the couple behind BioNTech

The couple behind the German coronavirus vaccine are not the only immigrants shaking up business in the country, a new study has found.

Prof Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci of BioNTech made headlines around the world as one of Europe’s biggest immigration success stories this week when the success of their vaccine boosted the value of the company to $21bn (£16bn).

They are the most high-profile of a wave of immigrants who increasingly play a disproportionate role in Germany’s start-up scene.

More than one in four start-ups established in Germany last year were founded by entrepreneurs with immigrant backgrounds, according to a new study by KfW Bank, the German state-owned development bank.

Some 605,000 new start-ups were founded in Germany last year, the study found — 58,000 higher than in 2018 and the first rise in five years.

However, the proportion founded by immigrants rose even more steeply, from 21pc in 2018 to 26pc last year, or some 160,000 of the new businesses.

“Start-ups are important because they power renewal and the future viability of an economy,” said Fritzi Köhler-Geib, chief economist at KfW.

“Germany has been benefiting for many years from the greater willingness of immigrants to set up their own businesses.”

BioNTech headquarters in Mainz

Credit: Anadolu Agency

People from an immigrant background are more likely to take the risk of self-employment and entrepreneurship because they face worse prospects on the German labour market, the study found.

For the purposes of the study, immigrants were defined as those who were not German citizens at birth.

Prof Sahin and Dr Türeci were pioneers long before the current surge of immigrant entrepreneurs. They founded their first pharmaceutical business in 2001 and sold it for $1.4bn (£1bn) in 2016. They founded BioNTech in 2008 to develop vaccine treatments for cancer.

Prof Sahin was born in Turkey but moved to West Germany when he was four after his father got a job as a Gastarbeiter, or migrant worker, at a car factory in Cologne.

Dr Türeci was born in West Germany after her father, also a doctor, immigrated from Turkey.

Germany was long distrustful of immigration. Gastarbeiters were expected to return to their home countries and it was very difficult for them to obtain German citizenship.

Prof Sahin and Dr Türeci are now among Germany’s richest 100 people. They are both scientists as well as entrepreneurs, and Prof Sahin teaches as Mainz University.