Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel joined NYCHBL CEO Bunny Ellerin for his first-ever Clubhouse interview on May 25, 2021. The discussion came on the heels of Moderna’s recognition by the Axios Harris Poll 100 as the third most admired company in the country. This is the first time a pharma or biotech company has made the top 10, let alone top 5, in the annual ranking of corporate reputation. Bunny was joined by Rob Jekielek of The Harris Poll to discuss Stephane’s experiences transforming a small biotech company with no commercial products into a COVID-19 vaccine powerhouse and simultaneously enabling reputational redemption for the pharmaceutical industry. The talk was hosted by the Business of Health club on Clubhouse led by Tara Wacks.
While Moderna has been in the news extensively over the past year for its COVID-19 vaccine, the company is far from an overnight success story. The biotech has been around for over a decade with Stephane at the helm since 2011 when he left the relative comfort of leading bioMerieux to join a start-up that few believed would be able to make mRNA safe and effective.
What enticed him to join was the potential of developing of a platform that could dramatically improve drug development success rates and speed. He believed that by investing in process development, IT and robotics, the speed of drug discovery, trials and manufacturing would be greatly reduced relative to traditional drug discovery models.
“This is 10 years of hard work and a lot of people sweating bullets to make this technology work. When we started this journey a decade ago, everybody in the industry thought that we were crazy. But I knew that if we could show that mRNA was safe in humans, then we could develop hundreds, maybe thousands of new medicines, which is simply impossible to do with traditional drug development technology.”
In addition to its COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna has 9 mRNA vaccines in development and dozens more in research. Stephane is particularly excited about a combination product that pairs a flu shot with a COVID variant booster in a single dose. Typical flu shots range in efficacy from 25% to 60%; Stephane believes Moderna can produce a flu shot with 90-95% efficacy.
Moderna is also working on drugs targeting cancer, cardiovascular disease, rare genetic diseases and autoimmune diseases. To highlight a few:
Cytomegalovirus (CMV): CMV is the number one cause of birth defects in the U S and around the world affecting one in 200 children and resulting in lifelong disability. It has been the top priority of the National Academy of Medicine for two decades, but there is still no treatment on the market.
“Every pharma company has tried and broken their teeth on CMV. Our Phase 1 and 2 data are extremely exciting, and we are weeks away from starting to phase 3. Hopefully in a couple years a CMV vaccine will be authorized, so that any young women over 16 can get vaccinated before pregnancy and have a healthy baby.”
Cardiology: One of the most exciting drugs in the pipeline is coding for VEGF, a protein used to grow new blood vessels. Typically, after a heart attack quality of life might be impaired because of loss of heart function due to poor blood flow. Moderna’s drug is being injected into the human heart within 48 hours of suffering a heart attack, and phase 1 study showed that it increased blood flow. Phase 2 is now underway to test whether the drug increases the heart’s ability to pump blood vs placebo.
Cancer: Moderna has five cancer drugs being tested, all of which are combined with an approved immune checkpoint to increase the percentage of people that respond to the medicine. Early signals in specific cancer types are encouraging.
We spent time discussing Moderna’s culture and principles. For many years, the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry has been low despite the many therapeutic advances. Now both Moderna and Pfizer have helped provide a new face for the industry. Stephane described the type of people attracted to the company at the outset.
“We attracted people who were extremely mission-driven. We knew the profound impact mRNA would have on treating so many diseases if we could prove that it worked. I like to tell people that our team would walk a full marathon on our knees to make this thing work, because we understand the impact on lives, happiness, and family. We have an extraordinary sense of a mission.”
As the company grew, Stephane recognized the need to address culture. The three things that were non-negotiable: integrity, quality, respect. The team settled on four values to guide the company: boldness, collaboration, curiosity, relentlessness.
“We will not succeed in our mission and what we’re trying to do to help millions by creating a new class of medicines if we are not massively collaborative. “
Collaboration. From Stephane’s time working in Big Pharma, he experienced the silos and the in-fighting among different functions and teams. From Moderna’s inception, he vowed to make collaboration a cornerstone of the company. He also shared that proactive communication is expected. One example he cited that stood out:
“When I learn something, I think about who else on the team show know this, who else can benefit? I may fire off an email to one person, sometimes 40 to 50 people. Who am I going to make stronger on the team because of this critical information they now have? “
Boldness. Moderna expects boldness in scientific thinking around drug development. The constraints that often inhibit Big Pharma’s way of thinking did not exist at Moderna. There were no expectations that things should be done a certain way. Rather they focused on using robotics and advanced digital technologies to propel their studies and provide quality data across the board.
Curiosity. Stephane encourages his team to look beyond life sciences for inspiration. Understanding how other industries like tech and auto innovate helps Moderna do things better and in a different way.
Relentlessness. Given the long runway for mRNA technology and the many scientific setbacks over the years, he found it important to push people to be relentless.