Co-founder and Chairman of Moderna
“I come from an immigrant family, like many innovators. I think immigration and innovation go hand in hand”
By Olivier O’Mahony and Zeina Trad The Arab Hospital Magazine
After having been able to get in touch with his company Flagship Pioneering that founded Moderna, its chairman Noubar Afeyan remembers his career as a biochemical engineer that has pushed him for thirty years to dedicate his life to innovating and transforming inventions into viable businesses. Thus, he created fifty companies and submitted a hundred patents! As early as February, Moderna announced that it had developed a new innovative type of vaccine against Covid-19 that had never been deployed in humans: the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. This technology consists of administering a molecule capable of causing the patient’s cells to generate their own medicine.
Is, mRNA-1273 developed by Moderna, the laboratory you co-founded, the miracle vaccine that the whole world is waiting for?
It is 94.5% effective and offers long-lasting protection for 120 days, according to a study we just published. It’s a great result. This vaccine is much easier to handle compared to other vaccines. Our vaccine can be kept for one day at room temperature, thirty days in a fridge, and six months in -20 degrees, while Pfizer’s vaccine requires a storage temperature of -70 degrees. This vaccine is injected while Pfizer’s needs to be diluted, which wastes time and leads to a risk of error.
However, a recent scientific study shows that the severity of side effects (fatigue, headaches, chills) increases with the second injection. Should we be worried?
No, this is a common reaction to all vaccines. And out of the 30,000 patients tested, we did not see any severe side effects.
You are one of the creators of this vaccine which was developed in record time. How did you accomplish that?
I am a biochemical engineer, and for thirty years I have dedicated my life to innovating and transforming inventions into viable businesses. Thus, I created fifty companies and submitted a hundred patents. This experience made me realize that contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurship is not improvisation. There are common points from one project to another and there are also rules to follow. Therefore, I created the investment company Flagship Pioneering, which founded Moderna.
Inventing new concepts, how do you accomplish that?
Instead of wondering what can be achieved with existing science, I ask the question: “what if?” (“And if it was possible?”). I rely on imagination. Invention is a process, in which one question leads to another.
What was the idea behind Moderna?
It was about coming up with a way to inject a molecule into the human body that causes the patient’s cells to generate their own medicine instead of administering a drug or a vaccine that will help them heal. This is a revolutionary approach, which went against the ideas established in the scientific world in 2010, and against my training as a biochemist, whose main mission is to create proteins to heal people. In this case, there is no need to create proteins: it is the human body that makes them, stimulated by mRNA. And the simple fact of asking ourselves if this method was viable led us to ask ourselves several related questions. We thought: “OK, if we want to do this, then we have to inject molecules capable of carrying information.” DNA or messenger RNA fall into this category.
DNA, which was already used in gene therapy, with varying degrees of success, was of little interest to us. On the other hand, the messenger RNA has never been used to produce drugs or vaccines, to the best of our knowledge; simply because when injected into a living organism, it is rejected by cells, as if it were a virus. So in 2010-2011, we looked and found a way to overcome the obstacle. We thus established a protocol that allowed us to design the Covid-19 vaccine nine years later.
Has anyone raised this question before you did?
No one came to me to put this idea forward. I brought it up to Professor Bob Langer (a biotech expert, Editor’s note), with whom I had a lot of discussions. I later learned that Genentech, a very reputable company, had previously tried the experiment and failed. But science has advanced: Derrick Rossi, a professor at Harvard, who worked on stem cells, managed to integrate the messenger RNA into a plate (dish: not sure about the French translation). So I thought to myself that the same could be done in a human body.
When did you discover your mission of becoming an inventor?
I have always been interested in science. When I was twelve, I used to dream about America and had heard of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I ended up doing my PhD. But I come from an immigrant family, like many inventors. I think immigration and innovation go hand in hand. In both cases, the process is the same: getting out of your comfort zone.
How did it become a reality?
There was an exile in my family for three generations. My grandparents who are Armenians, had to flee Turkey for Bulgaria, a neighboring country that they knew. My father was born there, but communism emerged, so he had to move to Greece and then to Lebanon, where he had never set foot. He was an architect but had to reinvent himself in the plastic import-export in Beirut where I was born. His business was going well, but he had to flee the civil war. I was thirteen years old and the youngest in a family of three sons. We settled in Montreal and today, I am an American citizen. My wife Anna is Swedish and is also a biochemist.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
Totally by chance. When I started my PhD at MIT, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Then I thought about becoming a lab employee. But one day in 1985, I went to a conference in Washington about japanese competitiveness, which at the time was thought to be a great threat to America.
At lunchtime, a very nice guy sitting next to me told me that in the 1930s he had created one of the first oscilloscopes. Then he told me his name was David Packard. I had no idea he was actually the co-founder of tech giant Hewlett-Packard. We stayed together and talked for an hour after the conference. He told me that as a student, he was part of a new generation of engineers, the “electronics engineers”.
I was 23 years old and I was a student in a new engineering specialty, biochemistry, so I ended up asking him how he got started, how he knew which product to start with. “It doesn’t matter which product you choose, most importantly is to get started and learn as you move forward,” he replied. As simple as that. I will never forget this piece of advice.
After that, I went to see a corporate sociologist, Professor Ed Roberts, at MIT, who warned me, “You don’t become an entrepreneur, you either are or you aren’t.” I think I was, because at the end of my PhD, I followed the example of Hewlett-Packard and created my first company specializing in the creation of tools for engineers in my specialty, biochemistry.
25 years later, you created Moderna, of which you are the Chairman. When you were certain that your approach works?
In 2011. We had just injected messenger RNA into a mouse, which by reaction, made exactly the protein we wanted. I was ecstatic when I received the results, my wife still talks to me about it. For me, that was the ultimate proof of the correctness of our approach. That’s when I recruited Stéphane Bancel, who is French.
It was a headhunter who gave me his name when I was looking for an administrator for one of my companies, BG Medicine, which specializes in medical diagnostics. Stéphane was then the head of BioMerieux laboratory, the French laboratory whose headquarters had just been relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts (the biotech Mecca, Editor’s note), right next to our premises. He’s a great guy, curious about everything, highly motivated leader and very interested in starting a business. While maintaining his job, he became administrator and then chairman of BG. He’s a biochemist like me and one of his teachers was a friend and a classmate. We had a lot in common. I offered him to join me, he was hesitant until I told him about my LS-18 project, Moderna’s code name. LS for Life Science. 18, because it was the eighteenth project of this type that I launched.
It was not easy to convince him to leave a well-known established French pharmaceutical company with more than 6,000 employees, for a completely new project with a limited budget of $ 2 million, without a website.
Indeed. I still remember it as if it was only yesterday: I called him as he was walking across the Longfellow Bridge, a famous bridge that connects Boston and Cambridge over the Charles River and told him, “I’m working on a crazy project, which can become Apple’s equivalent in biotechnology.” Except that I didn’t have any specific detail to give him. “It’s never going to work,” he replied, but I could tell he was interested. His wife, Brenda, later told me that when he got home that night, he was very annoyed that I was right. I was firing on all cylinders to convince him. I told him an old saying: “If you don’t throw the ball, you can’t score”. The mRNA technology is applicable to any disease: cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV…The RNA messenger is a molecule that carries information. If it manages to get into the human body, nothing can stop it. If technology works, there really will be a before and after in medicine. Stéphane felt he would forever blame himself if he missed this opportunity, therefore, he joined me.
Were Moderna’s beginnings challenging?
I would be lying to you if I told you we were short of money. We initially invested $2 million, which is not a lot, but we knew we could raise it very easily, which we managed to do quickly. Many experts doubted us but we didn’t.
Until today, Moderna has never made a profit or produced any medicine. How does the emergence of Covid-19 change the game for you?
When the first alarming news came from Wuhan, China, we were working on other plans. There was a debate within Moderna: some were against the idea of finding a vaccine against Covid-19. But one evening in January, I received an unusual phone call from Stéphane
He was then at the Davos forum, where he was harassed with questions on the subject. Stéphane’s calls were always preceded by text messages. When I saw his number displayed on my phone, as I was celebrating my daughter’s birthday, it was 3 a.m. in Switzerland where he was and I got worried.
In fact, he was very keen on getting into the vaccine race, and wanted to talk to me about it. The mARN technology works in all areas, why not in relation to Covid-19? We agreed: we must get on with that, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency and especially the speed of our approach. As of January 11, the day China released the genome of the virus, it only took us a few days to establish the protocol. 42 days later, we suggested a vaccine vial injectable into the human body, which is a world record according to Dr. Anthony Fauci. We have raised a lot of money from our shareholders, up to $ 1 billion.
The American authorities have given us a lot of money as well. Then the tests began. It was stressful and exhilarating at the same time. The teams started with 100 people and then, in the end, tested 30,000 people, which was an achievement. When phase 3 was successful, my wife told me that I was as excited as the day the mouse experiment was successful.
Moderna has been “burnt” by Pfizer’s vaccine where England began it Covid-19 vaccination program a week ago? Do you regret it?
Not at all, because the need for vaccines is going to be huge where there will be room for everyone. We opted for diversity, which delayed the testing phase, and we fully accept it. It seemed important to us that all population groups be represented. We have also included a large number of people of color. When we announced it last September, we knew that this choice would cause us to fall behind the competition.
Moderna’s vaccine should be approved on December 17 in the United States and then on January 12 in Europe. Are you optimistic?
I am always worried: optimism and confidence are not part of my vocabulary. What I know is that we have done everything we can to get these necessary approvals. Now, I cannot prejudge the decision of the supervisory authorities.
If all goes well, you will be credited with saving millions of lives. Is it staggering?
No. I’m just doing my job. And there is still a lot to do: upon approval, it will take us two years to grasp and control the introduction of the vaccine to the market: we won’t have time to be staggered.
Have you been vaccinated? Would you vaccinate your children?
Not yet, but as soon as possible I will of course. I have three daughters and a son. Everyone is looking forward to it!
By Olivier O’Mahony and Zeina Trad for Paris Match and The Arab Hospital Magazine