Pioneering A Big Idea with An Unborrowed Vision

June 28, 2017

Noubar Afeyan, Ph.D.
Co-founder and Chairman, Moderna Therapeutics
CEO, Flagship Pioneering


In April 2015, Luke Timmerman wrote an article that appeared in Forbes titled, ‘The Oprahs of Biotech: People Who Can Go by First Name Only.’

‘Stéphane’ was among the names in Luke’s article.

Most of the folks Luke included – indeed, some of the most prominent women and men in biotech – had been involved in biotech for quite some time, amassing proven track records in this space over many years, sometimes decades. (Full disclosure: Luke was gracious enough to include me on the list as well.)

But ‘Stéphane’ was fairly new to the biotech world.

He had joined Moderna in 2011, during its earliest stages of founding within the Flagship’s VentureLabs innovation foundry. He came from bioMérieux, where he had been CEO of that 6,000+-employee diagnostics company. Before that, he had risen through the ranks at Eli Lilly.  

Yet, in a matter of a few short years, he had already become a well-recognized figure in biotech. 

Stéphane is often cited for the amount of capital he’s raised. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find mention of Stéphane and/or Moderna in a news article where funding isn’t at least referenced, if not the primary focus. And it is quite a feat – nearly $2 billion. 

But I think what’s often overshadowed by that big number is the pioneering mRNA-therapeutics technology that is at the root of Moderna and its potential for far-reaching impact on human health.

Last night, Stéphane was named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 New England winner.

What’s great about this award is that it acknowledges the big idea that the Moderna team under Stéphane’s leadership is advancing – and not merely what they’re trying to accomplish, but how they’re going about it.

We’re not talking about one or two new medicines. If successful, this company could usher in an entire new class of medicines, a completely new way to treat a multitude of human diseases. 

I was interviewed for an article in Forbes last year about entrepreneurship. Based on 30 years of practicing entrepreneurship and innovation in the life sciences, I offered observations about what defines excellence in this emerging profession. Here’s how I believe Stéphane embodies many key elements, from that article, which I believe are necessary to be a successful biotech entrepreneur:

  1. Be a paranoid optimist. The path to success for Moderna is littered with both technology risk and biology risk. As Stéphane likes to say, “Making mRNA medicines is really, really hard.” So, of course, he constantly worries about what could go wrong. And, like any biotech startup, Moderna has had its share of challenges. But Stéphane also firmly believes that Moderna will achieve its mission and deliver to patients a new class of medicines. And his unfailing optimism has continued to drive Moderna’s pace and notable progress.
  2. Follow a process of variation-selection-iteration. This process has been core to Moderna’s culture across the board and at every step of the way. Stéphane is undaunted by constant variation-selection-iteration. Because nobody has ever built this company, climbed this mountain, an evolutionary approach is a must for survival and progress; agility is the name of the game.
  3. Recognize what creates value. From the time he joined us as CEO, Stéphane understood that Moderna’s value was not going to be tied to just one or two or even ten medicines. The value of this company is tied to big idea – mRNA is the software of life. And if mRNA could be used as a drug, you could build an entirely different kind of company, and address diseases that have, to date, evaded any known treatment paradigm.
  4. Be realistic. While mRNA could theoretically be used to encode for any human protein, the reality is there are some places it will work and some places it won’t – and you can’t do everything at once. The strategy at Moderna may be multiple shots on goal, but these are very deliberate shots – aimed at de-risking the platform from both a technology and biology risk in order to take on greater technology and biology risks over time.
  5. Think about the destination, not the directions. To me, this is perhaps the area where Stéphane’s innate entrepreneurial acumen has shone brightest. From the outset, Moderna has been a grand experiment in building a company around a single premise – what if mRNA could be a drug? If it’s possible, the potential ‘directions’ for this company are expansive. Stéphane knew early on that he could not build the company with directions in mind, nor limit exploration of the possibilities. It has always been about the destination, and the directions have followed.

I think it’s fair to say that Stéphane and Moderna have had their share of naysayers.  Pioneering organizations expect that, learn and grow stronger as a result.

When I heard the exciting news last night that Stéphane had been named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year winner, a wonderful excerpt from The Fountainhead came to mind …

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”

Congratulations, Stéphane for being recognized as an entrepreneurial leader, and for your unborrowed vision!