He has also been a driving force behind some of Boston’s largest biotech companies over the past 30 years.
“Tim’s an odd scientist guy,” says Derrick Rossi, a biotech entrepreneur and retired Harvard Medical School professor. “His passion is the mechanics of biology.”
Rossi doesn’t mean “weird” bad—just that Springer is driven by a desire to fill in the huge gaps in our knowledge of how our cells work in health and disease. And Rossi says he’s grateful that when he presented his own research on the potential applications of modified messenger RNA to Springer in 2010 when the two colleagues were at Harvard, he started a series of events that founded the company Moderna – and pledged to be its first investor. Largely due to Moderna’s success, Forbes estimates Springer’s net worth at over $2 billion.
Springer was a founder or investor in about half a dozen other biotech companies, including LeukoSite, which went public and was acquired in 1999 for $635 million, Selecta Biosciences, Morphic Therapeutic, and a Cambridge public company called Scholar Rock, according to Springer’s popular collector’s item. (It’s working on drugs to treat a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy, which typically occurs in early childhood.)
Existing drugs that Springer helped create treat diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and colitis. An anti-inflammatory drug, Entyvio, generates more than $4 billion in annual sales for its parent company Takeda — the Japanese company’s largest single product.
“Tim is a special type of person who understands how to be successful in a commercial setting and also how to fulfill your potential as an academic researcher and teacher,” says Terry McGuire, a venture capitalist whose Boston firm Polaris Partners has invested money in several Springer startups. “When he calls, the answer is, ‘Yes. What you wanna do?’ ”
Springer, a native of Sacramento, has been associated with Harvard since the early 1970s when he came to do his PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology; In 1977 he was an assistant professor. Springer’s study of how the immune system can sometimes overreact – involving proteins called integrins – led him to found his first startup, LeukoSite, in 1992. To demonstrate how these integrins behave in the walls of blood vessels, Springer had a sticky “splat” ball that he threw at a wall and slowly rolled down.
“One of the guys I suggested for funding said, ‘This guy is so crazy, we need to fund this company,'” recalls Springer. The company began developing drugs that could block the overactivity of the immune system in diseases like Crohn’s disease, in which inflammation disrupts the normal activity of the gastrointestinal tract. The resulting drug, Entyvio, is given intravenously to patients about six times a year. A more recent Springer startup, Morphic, is working on developing a pill version.
The sale of LeukoSite to Millennium Pharmaceuticals — a big deal in Boston biotech history — put Springer about $100 million in his bank account and gave him an opportunity to invest in both his own and other people’s startups. His approach to his own ventures is to raise half of the funding and hire a venture capital firm—often Polaris these days—to provide the other half.
“What I’m good at is recognizing good technique,” says Springer. “There are a lot of companies that were started with technology that’s hyped and doesn’t live up to it.”
Rossi recalls his first meaningful conversation with Springer in 2010. Springer, who was far older, had missed a lunchtime talk Rossi had given about his experiments in modifying messenger RNA so it could be transported into cells, but someone suggested showing him his presentation at Springer. So they met.
“Tim was very aggressive in challenging me to do this and that with science,” says Rossi. “It bordered on hostility.” But by the end of the meeting, Springer said the potential of the work was “really enormous,” Rossi recalled, and he offered to invest in any company Rossi wanted to start. “He was the first believer willing to put up money to invest in this company that later became Moderna,” says Rossi.
Several venture capital firms turned down the opportunity to invest in Rossi’s startup. But Springer helped with launches that eventually caught the attention of Flagship Pioneering, a Cambridge firm. Springer suggested his usual course of action: Let’s each raise half of the money the company needs. Wanting more control, Flagship ended up taking the larger part of a two-thirds-one-third split. Springer also linked MIT professor Bob Langer, a specialist in new ways to get drugs into the body, to the new company.
Moderna became world famous during the COVID pandemic and its rise The share price made Springer, Langer and Noubar Afeyan, Flagship’s CEO, all billionaires.
Now, Springer and Rossi say they feel written out of Moderna’s history, with Afeyan and Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel getting most of the credit and media attention for building a company that has a $65 billion market cap today and shipped more than 800 million doses of its COVID vaccine last year. (Afeyan and Bancel did not respond to email requests for comment.)
“There were some clashes, but looking back it’s fine,” says Springer, who originally served on Moderna’s board but stepped down by the time the company went public in 2018. What’s worth noting, though, is that he hasn’t decided to work with Flagship again since.
Springer is ruthlessly efficient with his time. When interviewing Praveen Tipirneni as Morphic’s potential CEO, he scheduled a 15-minute meeting with Tipirneni at his office. (Things were going well and it ended up lasting 90 minutes.)
Tipirneni, now CEO of Morphic, which went public in 2019, says that as a founder and board member, Springer is “this really interesting combination of a cheerleader, a teacher, a confessor, a judge, a juryman — and sometimes, when necessary, an executioner. ” Tipirneni says that Springer does not micromanage a startup, but that “a lot of people have been confronted with his strong opinion. He does not tolerate fools.”
As his net worth has increased, Springer hasn’t thrown money at the typical toys or status symbols.
He rides his bike or the Green Line to work every day; when he needs to drive, he jumps into his Toyota minivan. He owns a second home on Cape Cod where he sits on the board of directors of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. When he was about to be honored with a prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2004, “Springer decided to celebrate with a work of art”. So he wrote a script and commissioned a modern dance troupe to create a dance called “Turning on Integrins” that would bring his research to life. He has donated $30 million to start the Institute for Protein Innovation, a new research center at Harvard Medical School working to create an open-source antibody library potentially targeting a variety of diseases.
Springer’s biggest extravagance is probably his collection gongshi, which fascinated him after attending an art auction in New York. As he was working on designing his house in Newton, he went on a shopping spree to China; Over time, he shipped seven shipping containers back to the United States, all filled with rocks. “One weighed 23 tons,” says Springer. He likes the fact that scholars, not soldiers or politicians, were seen as the leaders in Chinese society. The rocks lie next to a cluster of trees, including a Cedar of Lebanon and a rare Euonymus tree.
Springer is partnering with Polaris on another biotech startup — one that’s still in stealth mode, he says. The focus, he says, is on suppressing the immune system’s sometimes overzealous response to protein-based drugs.
“It has to be argued that what he’s doing in the future could eclipse what he’s done in the past – he’s in really peak productive condition,” says Tipirneni.
Springer is married to Chafen Lu, a former Harvard Medical School faculty member and former researcher in his lab. He has five children, three from his first marriage. Springer says Lu doesn’t think he’ll ever retire.
“As long as I’m having fun and working with smart people,” he says, “it’s very stimulating to me.”