Noubar Afeyan is the co-founder and chairman of Moderna and the founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering


McGill’s Moderna connection

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine is one of the planet’s best hopes for prevailing against a pandemic that has affected millions around the world. Noubar Afeyan, BEng’83 (pictured), is the company's co-founder, while Hamilton Bennett, BSc(FSc)’07, is one of the principal players leading Moderna’s vaccine efforts.

Story by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

June 2021

When the news he had been waiting for arrived, Noubar Afeyan’s first thought was that it was probably bad.

“It was a Sunday morning and I was home with my wife,” says Afeyan, BEng’83, the co-founder and chairman of Moderna. An independent data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) was reviewing the results of the phase three clinical trials for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. The DSMB was examining double-blinded data, so even Afeyan and his Moderna colleagues were unsure of the results. He was awaiting the verdict.

“I was expecting to hear something in the late afternoon, but the news came a bit earlier and I was taken by surprise. I grew up [believing] that bad news travels faster.”

But the news wasn’t bad. It was exactly the news that Afeyan was hoping to hear. It was the news that millions of people around the world were hoping to hear. Moderna’s vaccine worked. It had an efficacy rate of more than 94 per cent.

“We knew then that we would be moving to a new phase,” says Afeyan. “We would be making hundreds of millions of doses.” COVID-19 vaccines, produced by Moderna and other companies, would soon be playing an unprecedented role in the world.

“There has never been a biotech invention that has ever entered as many human beings,” in such a short span of time, says Afeyan. “Even something like Aspirin, I doubt, has been in billions of people all at the same time. This is a whole new experience for our industry. We’re seeing a moment where, hopefully, 95 per cent, if not 100 per cent, of the people on this planet will benefit from this new technology.”

Over the course of his career, Afeyan has become a specialist in creating innovative companies. In fact, he is the founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a company that was created to create other companies – including Moderna. Flagship has developed and finetuned a formula for doing just that. And the goal is always to create a particular kind of company.

In a talk earlier this year that was co-hosted by the McGill Engine Centre and the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, Afeyan described the companies that he and his Flagship colleagues seek to nurture. He is interested in launching new companies that “allow us to leap to big breakthrough innovations, as opposed to incrementally advancing what’s [already] possible.”

The process, boiled down, works out something like this: an innovative idea, something outside the ordinary, is rigorously tested to see if it is feasible. According to the Flagship website, 80 to 100 of these ideas are carefully assessed each year. The ones with the most promise, the ones that look doable, eventually form the basis for a new company, and Flagship equips that company with everything it needs to have a real shot at success – a leadership team, a board of directors, and help with funding.

Afeyan describes these companies as having all the strengths of both an “insurgent” (a bold new approach or technology) and an “incumbent” (skilled leadership and ready-from-day-one resources). Flagship has been granted more than 2,500 patents worldwide and it has launched more than 100 companies. Thirty-three are currently in operation. One of them is Moderna.

Flagship lists all its companies on its site and each one has its own “What if…” question attached to it to describe the initial idea that propelled the company’s creation. For Moderna, the question was this: “What if we could instruct a patient’s own cells to produce proteins that could prevent, treat, or cure diseases?”

Moderna relies on messenger RNA (mRNA) to do this. Essentially, mRNA is a crucial middle manager in our bodies, carrying out instructions from our DNA and delivering them to the cells that make the proteins that affect all the things that take place inside our bodies. In the case of the mRNA vaccine that Moderna developed for COVID-19, cells are instructed to create proteins that will rally the immune system to protect us from getting sick if the coronavirus enters our bodies.

“I think that messenger RNA can be the underlying technology for dozens of new vaccines and drugs,” says Afeyan. “What was remarkable was that all the years we spent developing our platform kind of made it ready just as this pandemic hit.”

In a recent interview with MSNBC, Afeyan noted that Moderna was already collaborating with the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. on a vaccine for MERS, a related coronavirus, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. “That helped us get out of the gate very quickly,” Afeyan said.

Afeyan spent much of his youth in Montreal after his family left Lebanon in 1975 during the civil war there. His family has an uncomfortably long history with dangerous times. His father had initially arrived in Lebanon to escape communism in Bulgaria. His grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

Afeyan studied chemical engineering at McGill. As an undergraduate, he had one of the easiest commutes in Montreal. He and his family lived in an apartment in the Cartier Building at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke. “The [McLennan] Library was literally across the street. My apartment was closer to McGill than McGill’s own dorms were. I could crawl out of my bed and be in class in about four minutes.”

He played a lot of sports – broomball, flagball, football, basketball. “In engineering, these sports were major sources of competition and winning the [various championships] was a big deal between the different departments,” says Afeyan. “I edited the chemical engineering newsletter, too. Living so close to campus, I was quite engaged with everything that was taking place there.

“One of the things that I really appreciated about the McGill engineering school was that the faculty included a lot of practitioners and not just theoretical engineers. These were people who worked in the industry and I was very interested in the applied side of the field. One of my professors was Michael Avedesian. At the time, he was the head of R&D at Domtar.”

Afeyan took on engineering jobs in the summers as a student, including one at Dow, the multinational chemical giant.

“That showed me what real engineers did, but it also convinced me that I didn’t want to go into a field that was already 50 or 60 years old from a point of view of innovation,” says Afeyan. “That pushed me down the path of figuring out what was more cutting-edge at the time.” He settled on the still young field of biochemical engineering and applied to MIT for his graduate studies.

MIT was the only university he applied to.

“I look back at that now and I can’t fathom what I was thinking,” says Afeyan. “I didn’t apply anywhere else but MIT, which I didn’t realize was completely ridiculous on my part. The comedy of being an immigrant, and people don’t realize this, is that there are all these things you just don’t know.” He didn’t grow up with the same pop culture references as most of his peers. He hadn’t listened to the same songs or watched the same cartoons as a youngster. “I didn’t know any of Yogi Bear’s expressions and I didn’t know that MIT was hard to get into.”

Luckily for Afeyan, MIT accepted his application. He completed a doctorate there. While at MIT, he represented the school at a National Science Foundation meeting in Washington, D.C. He struck up a conversation with a stranger during lunch, not realizing until later that he was talking to Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard. Packard chatted about how his company was formed.

During his McGill talk in January, Afeyan described the impact this chance meeting had on him. “I had never really thought of the fact that mere mortals could start companies,” he said. “I spent another two hours asking him as many questions as I could come up with about how somebody does that.”

After graduating from MIT, Afeyan was determined to start a business of his own.

“The timing was interesting, because it was right after the market crash in 1987 when I started talking to investors. I saw these big industries going down and I knew it was going to be a difficult few years of recovery.” In spite of that – or, more accurately, because of that – Afeyan thought the time was right to secure backing for a new company.

“I believed it might be a good moment to start something new, because I thought [all these investors] would have a ton of time on their hands and they would be able to focus on what I was proposing. In a more active time, everyone would be pitching their ideas [at them].”

He launched PerSeptive Biosystems in 1987. It became a major player in the bio-instrumentation field with $100 million in annual revenues. The company was sold 10 years after its founding.

He then became senior vice-president and chief business officer of Applera, an international biotech company. While there, he played a key role in the creation of Celera Genomics.

Now that he knew how to build a successful company, Afeyan came up with a different challenge for his next chapter. He would build a company that built companies. Flagship Pioneering was officially founded in 2000.

“I thought [this] form of entrepreneurship, what I used to call parallel entrepreneurship, would be about as scary for me as a 37-year-old as starting a single company was when I was 24,” says Afeyan. “I really wanted to push myself to where failure was a real option. I just don’t think that if you stay in your comfort zone that you’re going to have the opportunity to have the same kind of impact.”

Afeyan suspects that mindset has a lot to do with his background as an immigrant.

“I think this whole notion of migrating, moving from one place to a hopefully better place, I do think this is an absolutely integral part of entrepreneurs and innovators because you wouldn’t start something new if you thought what existed was good enough.

“That willingness to risk unfamiliarity, that’s something people try to avoid,” says Afeyan. “To be willing to take that risk, well, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not that easy to do, so it plays to our strengths.”

Even before the pandemic, Afeyan says he has been questioning the way society approaches the whole sphere of healthcare.

“We’ve become almost resigned to the fact that our health has to get really bad and then we will deploy all these expensive surgeries and treatments,” he says. “Medicine often focuses on providing solutions for really serious problems, instead of helping us to avoid those problems before they become so serious.

“We need to shift our investments upstream to prevention. We need to come up with approaches that can deter, defer [or] derail diseases, as opposed to trying to treat it once it’s there. That is what I’m focused on these days.”

It sounds like the staff at Flagship Pioneering will be keeping busy, putting more potentially disruptive ideas to the test, looking for the next Moderna.

From Macdonald to Moderna

As the senior director for vaccine access and partnerships at Moderna, Hamilton Bennett, BSc(FSc)’07, has been playing a major role in overseeing the development of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna has pledged to produce at least 600 million doses of the vaccine for worldwide distribution before the end of this year.
Hamilton Bennett standing outside in front of a tree
Hamilton Bennett is Moderna’s senior director for vaccine access and partnerships.
2020 was a year like no other for Bennett, as Moderna and other biotech and pharmaceutical firms worked frantically to develop and test COVID vaccines at a pace never seen before. Ask her if any one moment stands out and she’ll point to a meeting last November that involved Moderna representatives and the members of the independent data safety monitoring board (DSMB) that scrutinized the results of the phase three clinical trials for Moderna’s COVID vaccine.
“For Moderna and our collaborators, the data was double-blinded – we didn’t know who received vaccines and who received placebos,” explains Bennett. “The DSMB gets to look at that data unblinded. They [went] through a closed session to review the data and then they invited us back to give us the results. After spending 11 months on this, to hear the DSMB say we’re pleased to inform you that your product has an efficacy rate of greater than 94 per cent, that was a pretty big moment for all of us on the call. I started to cry. I had to turn off the camera on my computer a couple of times. Because that’s what all our work was leading up to – did we develop a vaccine that was going to help people?”
Bennett was born in Kentucky and moved to New Hampshire as an adolescent. “I was slowly making my way toward McGill,” she jokes. It’s safe to say that the University has left a lasting mark on her. Her very first tattoo? It was a Martlet. She recently answered some questions about her time at McGill and about the most challenging, exhausting and rewarding year of her life.
What was it about McGill’s Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry Programs that drew you to study here?
Oh boy (laughs). You may not like this answer! It was entirely a fluke in the paperwork.
As an international student going into the sciences, I had to complete my U0 coursework in my first year to level up to all the Quebec students. When I got my acceptance letter from McGill, I saw that it was from Macdonald Campus and the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry. I called them up and said, “What is this? I didn’t apply to this program.” I had applied to biochemistry, anatomy, physiology – all the things that I thought would set me up to be pre-med.
The person I spoke to said, “Well, your standard coursework is all the same for that first year. You have to take the same eight classes regardless of where you are, so why not come to Macdonald and after that first year, you can transfer out if you want to.”
I had an incredible food science professor that first year, Ashraf Ismail. He took me under his wing and gave me a job in his lab. He told me, “I think you’re probably going to want to stay here at the end of your first year.” And he was right.
Macdonald was a place where you could have one-on-one relationships with your professors. It is a small community and it’s an incredibly diverse community.
When you’re young and you’re in college, you’re very idealistic. You want to save the world. I never really lost that because I was always around people who were so engaged. A lot of the students in nutrition and dietetics were really interested in Indigenous health issues and equity. The people who were studying plant science and agriculture were very environmentally focused. It was very easy to be inspired by the people you were spending your days with.
I ended up graduating with a degree in food science after knowing zero about it going in. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
What were you involved in outside of your courses?
I was on the student council at Mac and then I sat on McGill’s Board of Governors as a student representative for Macdonald Campus.
Dick Pound was the chair back then, and, to a tee, the governors were all so nice. They wanted to know what student life was like and they were all so interested in talking to me about my studies. At some point, they put me on the finance subcommittee, and I remember thinking, man, I am out of my depth (laughs). I had the privilege of punching above my weight. And now, years later, here I am [working on] a multibillion-dollar program.
How did you end up at Moderna?
I was working at another company and I learned that Moderna had received a contract with the U.S. government to work on a Zika vaccine. I had always wanted to work with vaccines, because, working in public health, that’s the ultimate goal, to prevent disease. I started emailing everyone I could at [Moderna], everyone who had an email address, and said, “I’m the person you want for this job!”
I knocked on enough doors that eventually they brought me in for an interview and I became the program lead for the Zika vaccine project. I did that for a few years. Then when our COVID program became so big, I had to hand that project to someone else and I became the program lead for COVID fulltime.
When I joined Moderna in 2016, it was for the Zika program, but it was also knowing that a technology like mRNA could completely transform the way we deal with reemerging infectious diseases and how we think about pandemic preparedness. The technology is so easily adapted. You don’t have to start from ground zero every time.
When we first looked at this coronavirus outbreak, we knew that this was what our platform was designed to do, and that if we wanted to show the world that mRNA could be critical for us being able to radically transform public health preparedness, we needed to do it on this program. And we were able to take that decision much more easily than [a company focused on] a protein-based or a live virus-based vaccine where the startup costs are so much more significant, and the prospect of success is lower.
Moderna’s work on its COVID-19 vaccine has been closely followed by the media. In some sense, the world was looking over your shoulder as you and your team worked on this vaccine. Did you feel that pressure?
I didn’t necessarily feel the pressure of it that way. These days, I learn about what’s in the news when somebody texts me something, or when our CEO sends around a news article. Otherwise, I’ve been living in the smallest bubble I’ve ever experienced in my life. All I do is think about this program.
The pressure we’ve been putting on ourselves is pretty great. We all know how important this is. And there are so many pieces to this. Going back to last February or March, for instance, we realized that if we were going to generate a vaccine, and others were generating vaccines, there could be certain pinch points in the supply chain where everyone needs a vial for their vaccine and everyone needs syringes to administer vaccine. So, we started to look across our supply chain and very quickly understood where the critical materials were that we needed, and [how] to build up the capacity that we needed and we started to secure that. We had partners to make sure that we had additional manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and in Switzerland. We had to secure that capacity and that supply chain almost a year in advance.
We have had to keep moving. All these things we’ve experienced would be incredible milestones in a career, but because they are happening so quickly in this pandemic, you don’t really get the chance to step back and appreciate it.
It is nice that people feel so connected to the development of these vaccines. I don’t think the world has ever cared so much about how this is done. Everybody is getting a vaccine development 101 course this year.
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