Dr. Timothy Springer, Scientist, Serial Entrepreneur & Social Advocate

From A Professor To A Billionaire

Timothy Springer, Ph.D., is a professor at Harvard Medical School. He’s an immunologist known for his pioneering work in discovering the first integrins and how these cell adhesion molecules function in the immune system. His research has paved the way for the development of therapeutic antibodies, known as selective adhesion molecule inhibitors, to treat autoimmune diseases.

Springer saw his first big break in making millions during the dot-com bubble of 1999. He sold his first venture, LeukoSite to Millennium Pharmaceuticals for $100 million. He took $5 million of his profit from that and invested it in pre-IPO Moderna, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that was focused on drug discovery and drug development, which makes sense, based on his educational and career background. Springs is also the founder of biotechnology companies Morphic Therapeutic and Scholar Rock.

Springer is a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, where he began teaching in 1977 and currently mentors postdoctoral 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.

Moderna, Inc, was founded in 2010 under than name, ModeRNA. It was based on Harvard University research by Derrick Rossi, who developed a method for modifying mRNA, transfecting it into human cells, dedifferentiating mRNA into stem cells, which then differentiated into the desired cell types. Rossi approached his fellow Harvard faculty member Tim Springer to become the company’s first investor and he did.

Springer saw his first big break in making millions during the dotcom bubble of 1999. He sold his first venture, LeukoSite to Millennium Pharmaceuticals for $100 million

Springer did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. at Harvard. Springer is Moderna’s fourth-largest shareholder and made $400 million from the company’s IPO. More recently, Springer (72), has ridden a 17,000% return in his Moderna shares, the biggest biotech IPO in history which has gained him entrance to the exclusive billionaire’s club. Shares of Moderna are up 162% by the end of last year on news of its work on a coronavirus vaccine. The company was one of the first to start human trials on a vaccine for COVID-19.

Much before Covid pandemic was even known, Springer understood the danger that viruses could potentially cause. So a decade ago, he came across Moderna. It was a biotech company that focused on drug discovery, drug development, and vaccine technologies. It wasn’t as exciting as electric cars or online shopping, but as a biology professor, he understands the importance of vaccines. So he decided to invest in this company. Currently, he owns 3.5 per cent of the company. Since Moderna is valued at around $30 billion dollars end of last year, his stake equals to around $1 billion, just from Moderna (according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index).

His current projects include a non-profit to advance entrepreneurship and innovation in protein therapeutics and open-source antibodies and small molecules. Next is a dual-acting malaria vaccine, to both protect humans from being infected, and to prevent mosquitos from transmitting infection.

Privately, over the years Springer has been inspired by the gongshi, or Chinese scholars’ rocks naturally sculpted rocks that have been treasured across China, Korea and Japan for centuries, and even named one of his biopharmaceutical companies—Scholar Rock—after them.

Springer’s current projects include a non-profit to advance entrepreneurship and innovation in protein therapeutics and opensource antibodies and small molecules.

After spending a decade learning about gongshi at various symposia and lectures, Springer was inspired to make a major acquisition when he began building a new house. He wanted to plant a monumental rock in the garden, tall enough to scale the height of his home’s second storey. And he wanted to choose it himself, in China. Over the years, he has bought thousands of rocks.

He started his collection in 1998, when he and his wife Chafen Lu, also scientist and Ph.D. went to an Asian art fair in New York. One stand featured an impressive waist-high rock. “I’d never seen anything like that before,” he says. He bought the rock and learned about gongshi at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, primarily from Kemin Hu, a leading expert and dealer who lives just a few towns away.

Springer is more interested in the tradition of stone appreciation in China than in Japan, where these rocks are dubbed suiseki, or Korea, where they are called suseok, with one playing a supporting role in the recent Oscar-winning Korean film, Parasite. “The aesthetic of the Chinese is that there should be no visible work on the rock whatsoever,” Springer explains. “It should be totally natural.”

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