While COVID-19 began spreading across China in early 2020, Nubar Afian, president of Moderna, received a phone call. His chief executive told him that top public health officials had asked if the biotechnology company’s experimental vaccine technology could help fight the virus.
The request came at a critical time for the decade-old pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, which only a few days earlier had set out a platform for investors focusing on a number of other drugs. It has not yet had any approved products or revenue of little value – $ 8.4 million for the three months to March 31, 2020, and half of it for the same period last year. Leading resources to a virus that has not yet been a global threat was a calculated risk. But the prospects piqued the interest of Avian and its CEO, Stefan Bancel. On the call, they agreed that they would join what has become a global race to develop a vaccine for Covid.
“We did not know that Covid was going to be a big deal, but we did know that our mRNA technology base was uniquely designed for very fast execution,” says Avian. The phone call was a “heat call”.
Moderna’s transformation to confront Covid has borne fruit. Within 11 months, the company developed and manufactured a vaccine called Spikefax, which saved millions of lives and helped the world out of lockdown, turning the American company into a $ 60 billion biopharmaceutical group.
This success, and similar efforts by German rivals Biontech and Pfizer, demonstrated the ability of messenger RNA – the genetic material that transmits messages from our DNA to the body’s protein-making cells – to provide vaccines. Modern is now developing dozens of other vaccines that target diseases from HIV to cancer.
This achievement made Avian a billionaire and encouraged the 59-year-old entrepreneur to expand Flagship Pioneering – a unique incubator for biotechnology companies inventing, developing and financing their own technology.
The company, which founded Avian Flagship in 1999, has helped launch more than 70 companies. Some investors believe it is revolutionizing the biotechnology entrepreneurship process, combining basic research with business and investment expertise. Modern is the most prominent success of Flagship, but Avian has founded dozens of companies. Twelve of Flagship’s current counts of 41 companies are listed, including Denali Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that develops drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
Avian says that Flagship focuses on many different ideas simultaneously rather than on one project, in a similar way to venture capitalists. To achieve this, Avian and the flagship team of 300 scientists, bankers, CEOs and other employees begin the process by asking a series of “what ifs” questions related to the basic sciences. When they come up with an idea for what could become a successful business, they secure intellectual property rights – last year Flagship applied for more than 400 patents – and invested between $ 1 million and $ 2 million to prove the business model before pursuing a company.
Indigo Agriculture, which is developing technology to increase crop yields and profitability, for example, started as a simple hypothesis that applying microbes to plants can affect their health, says Afian. He added that many flagship start-ups do not progress until the team stops them in the “Darwinist evolution process” to select winners. But the remaining companies can rely on the capital raised after a $ 3.4 billion fundraiser in June 2021.
Avian says this centralized fundraiser enables Flagship to retain control of the companies in its portfolio, which typically own 50 to 60 percent of the shares in it when they are disclosed. This financial capability could support companies during cyclical downturns – currently, the Nasdaq biotechnology index has fallen 27 percent over the past year, driven by rising interest rates that have driven speculative investors out of the sector.
During a tour of the Flagship offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts – not far from MIT, where he earned his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering in 1987 – Avian says a key part of Flagship’s success is due to its unique culture, which focuses on the team rather than the team.the individual.
“Entrepreneurship is usually about making heroes rather than glorifying the process,” he says. “But you have a greater chance of success and you can get things done faster by spending less money as an organization, rather than a group of people doing heroic things.”
Bancel, CEO, who was persuaded by Avian a decade ago to join Moderna as CEO, describes his boss as a “renaissance man”, a “unique mix” of scientist, entrepreneur and entrepreneur. “Most people think of Nubar as a venture capitalist, but most of all he is an entrepreneur.”
Afian says his Armenian heritage, his upbringing as a child in war-torn Beirut and his immigrant status in the United States – where he came to live in 1983 and naturalized in 2008 – all shaped his entrepreneurial spirit. His father’s aunt was one of the most important influences in his life. “She lived during the Armenian Genocide and her two brothers were taken to be killed, not once, but twice. The reason I’m here is because they managed to survive a second time. These experiences motivated me to have the courage to go to the edges of things, ”says Afian.
Avian recognizes the opportunity to meet David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard, in the mid-1980s because he inspired him to start a company that made tools for the biotechnology industry. A few years later, Afian founded Perceptive Biosystems, which he sold for $ 360 million in 1997, providing capital for Flagship.
Avian describes the leadership of Moderna’s board of directors during the race to develop a Covid vaccine as a waterfall of “major challenges”. However, mRNA science, the aspect that excites most people, is not one of the top three challenges, he says, due to a decade of research by the company’s scientists.
Setting up and conducting clinical trials for 30,000 people at lightning speed was a much bigger test. He says the company has never experimented with more than a few hundred people. Other challenges were to produce more than a billion doses of the vaccine at a time when no more than a few thousand had been made before, and to ensure that other work programs were not shut down.
“The issue is how do you judge that there is this level of uncertainty and when decisions are made, it involves hundreds of millions of dollars,” Avian adds.
There were other obstacles as well. In May, Moderna’s chief financial officer Jorge Gómez left after just a day at work as it came to light that his former company, dental equipment manufacturer Dentsble Sirona, was investigating former top executives on financial reporting.
Critics say Moderna should have investigated more before appointing Gomez. They also pointed out that the recent departure of other senior employees may be related to previous allegations of a “toxic” work environment, an allegation that Avian vehemently denied.
“I can not think of another approach we could have used,” says Avian, when asked about Gomez’s appointment. He adds that non-disclosure rules prevented Gomez or Dentspley from disclosing the investigation prior to his appointment, and that it would be wrong to confuse Gomez’s departure with allegations of a poor work culture, which Stat, a health news website, first reported in 2016. people Those who reported such allegations never believed the company’s vaccine would work, he says.
He adds, “The leadership changes fit perfectly with the rapid growth and scale that Moderna saw during the pandemic, as it went from a relatively unknown company before Covid, where it had about 700 employees, to 3,500 employees today. “
Moderna’s challenges are not over yet, as he has yet to prove to investors that he can use his mRNA technology base to develop other drugs. On the question of whether Moderna should remain a manufacturer of one product? He replied, “That’s nonsense.”
“We have 46 programs and fortunately we now have enough financial resources to complete them all.”
“I can not tell you which drugs in our mRNA technology base will be approved first, but I am very confident that some of the 46 candidates will be successful.”
Three questions for Nubar Avian
Who is your role model in leadership?
Lee Kuan Yew, the godfather of modern Singapore, who embodies the idea of thinking backwards about the future instead of the present. He had to paint a vision and insist it was accessible.
What would you do if you were not a founder?
I was planning to make the movies – right from screenwriting to production. Imagination and creativity are what inspire me, and I love to see how the story of a fantasy comes to life. I also like complex and problem-solving projects that are bearing fruit.
What was the first driving lesson you learned?
It’s important to hire the best people, but it’s getting the best out of people that makes the difference in great companies. When I started, I focused heavily on intelligence, education and experience, rather than innate qualities such as creativity, courage, curiosity and team spirit. Obviously you need both, but inspiring people to lead and perform in ways they did not know can lead to amazing teams and great progress.