Moderna Co-founder Speaks on Innovation, Imagination and the Immigrant Mindset
On November 2nd, the Emmanuel Business Collaborative Speaker Series hosted Dr. Noubar Afeyan, the co-founder and chairman of Moderna and founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a life science innovation firm that was conceived to offer an alternative to existing methods of entrepreneurial innovation.
Moderated by Anne Marie Pasquale, JD, Associate Dean of the School of Business & Management, the event was under the new Emmanuel Business Collaborative (EBC), which aims to blur the lines between the classroom and the real world, equipping students with the analytical tools and decision making skills to serve as effective and ethical business leaders.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, and of Armenian heritage, Dr. Afeyan and his family fled the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and settled in Montreal as political refugees. Reflecting on his career trajectory, he realized that being an immigrant has had a significant influence on his path.
“If you have an immigrant background, you always feel like an outsider,” he said. “Over time I’ve realized there is a mindset an immigrant has to have to survive, and it’s very similar to what innovators need, and to what entrepreneurs need.
“If you’re going to innovate, you’re leaving the bounds of what preceded you. You’re attempting to do something that everybody thinks is crazy. If you insist and persist and adapt and eventually you break through, you then become the native of the new way. That same journey that immigrants go through to adapt and become part of a new reality is what innovators do. I think that innovation is intellectual immigration.”
When he was a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Afeyan by chance struck up a conversation with David Packard of Hewlett-Packard at a National Science Foundation conference at which “competitiveness” was the topic. Through their conversation, he gained courage from Packard’s unintimidating approach to making a name in a developing field, and started his first company in 1987 to make instruments in the biotechnology industry.
Throughout his career, Dr. Afeyan has co-founded and developed dozens of life sciences and technology startups, but has adopted the model of “parallel entrepreneurship” rather than “serial entrepreneurship.” With this model, he built his company, Flagship Pioneering, to answer the questions, “Could you create companies through teams, processes and an institution instead of through an individual startup, and if so, how would it operate?”
“The way innovation happens is that it’s a really crowded space,” he said. “Once someone has a good idea, there are 70 people working on the same idea.”
Knowing he didn’t want to attempt to “out-execute, out-charm or out-sell” other companies, he looked toward out-innovating them, “not in quantity of innovation, but in distance of innovation from the present.”
Through Flagship, the company’s goal was to “take leaps of innovation, not adjacency-orientated innovation” and create a methodology that gave them the ability to “dare to be first in the category in every company we are creating.”
Dr. Afeyan spoke to students in particular about the roles of innovation and imagination in the sciences, and how the two led Flagship Pioneering to establish Moderna, a “product of imagination” for developing mRNA therapeutics, vaccines and medicines to treat rare diseases and cancers.
“For a species that wants to solve world problems with innovation, we are fairly anti-imagination,” he said. “As humans, we’ve evolved the capability to imagine. That’s the first step of leaping. The first step is imagination, the second step is belief...Broadly, our education system roots out our ability to imagine. It discourages it.”
While it seems Moderna became a household name overnight with the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Afeyan explained that the technology was already years in the making. When COVID hit, he explained, Moderna was a 700-person company, which had spent $2.5 million over 10 years perfecting a platform they then had to apply to an unsuspecting virus in hopes of defeating it.
Reflecting on lessons learned from the pandemic, Dr. Afeyan said there are many, if we as a society choose to learn them. Despite the fast-moving news cycle, the pandemic should cause humanity to ask a very simple question: What do we mean by health care? Also, what do our countries owe us? “I would argue what we call health care is actually sick care,” he said, “Because you have to be sick to get any of it.”
“We need to think of our health as a matter our governments owe us the security of, not the care of,” he said. And while the idea of public health care may be too “one size fits all,” he urges health care to move toward preemptive medicine—find preconditions to disease, treat the preconditions, hold disease at bay, and don’t wait for it to take hold. The pandemic, he noted, showed society how severely underlying conditions can affect the population. “A society that puts money into that I think will have much more affordable health care when you are sick.”
When asked if he had any final words of advice for students, Dr. Afeyan’s response was simple: “Trust your crazy ideas.”
Watch the full video of Dr. Afeyan's talk >>
November 2, 2021 | EBC Speaker Series with Dr. Noubar Afeyan
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