The interview: Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna
After giving the world a fighting chance against COVID, where does Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel see the pandemic — and his company — going next?
Early 2020, Moderna was a relatively unknown Cambridge biotech with no approved drugs in its name. Two years later, thanks in large part to the efforts of French-born CEO Stéphane Bancel, the company’s COVID-19 vaccine has saved countless lives around the world, with trials now underway for others. mRNA-based shots, including an all-in-one that could fight flu, COVID, and other respiratory ailments in one shot. As Boston embraces life without a mask again, we sat down with the billionaire scientist-turned-businessman to talk about the future of the pandemic, competition from China and how a conversation with his uncle changed the trajectory of his life.
You are a scientist. Looking back, was it a good idea for you to go to business school?
It was because the challenge with a science-based business is that it’s still a business. And with science, you don’t know when things are going to work. You have to think a lot about risk.
Companies these days often have weird names that really don’t mean anything. How did you choose Moderna?
If you look at the technology we use, it takes modified uridine to produce RNA, so it’s a combination of mod, modification, and RNA—Moderna. We also liked that Moderna in many languages means “modern”. It was a modern way of creating drugs, where instead of making drugs in the bioreactor, you make them in someone’s body with RNA. And so because of those two things, we liked it a lot.
In America, for years, we have been totally compliant with vaccination against diseases such as smallpox and poliomyelitis. Why do you think there is so much resistance today?
You know, 40 years ago, when you and I were kids, our mothers did what the pediatrician asked. My opinion is that social media has had a very negative impact on society because it reinforces what people want to hear. With all the misinformation that you are very aware of, many people use sources that are neither reliable nor accurate. Also, the vaccine was certainly highly politicized because the rollout occurred during an election year.
There seems to be an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease, but there has been very little progress in finding a cure. Do you think this will change?
I think the increase in life expectancy and the better healthcare system has brought out more cases over the years. In the past, you may have had people in remote areas of the United States or Europe who did not receive an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Progress on a cure hasn’t been good because the central nervous system is a very, very complex machine with many, many parts that we don’t understand as the global scientific and medical community. So, do I think we’re going to move forward? Yes. I believe in science. I believe in human ingenuity. And I believe that by continuing to learn how the body works, we will come to a stage where we will understand the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease. And once we understand it, we can find the right tools to prevent and treat it. But I think you would be extremely arrogant, unfortunately, to give timelines on progress.
In terms of new research, I know that pharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and biotech companies spend billions developing things with no guarantees that they will work or be approved. How do you continue to innovate with such high stakes?
As a society, we need taxpayer dollars flowing to educational institutions to push the boundaries of basic research. And then you have to find the right public-private partnership when it’s very risky, as we have done in the past. We have a Zika vaccine that is in phase 2, working with the US government. And that’s a good thing, because we’re making the technology available for free. I have no idea when the next outbreak might occur, but what I do know is that there is going to be another outbreak of Zika. And when that happens, the world will be grateful the vaccine has been approved, so that we don’t go back to the painful process we went through with SARS-CoV-2.
You were born in Marseilles. Do you sometimes miss France?
I love this country, of course. This is my fourth time living in America, and we’ve been here since September 2008 or so, 14 years this time. My wife is American and my two daughters were born in the United States, so they have American citizenship. But I miss France. I miss the culture, I miss the food, and I miss my friends and family.
If we are lucky, we will find a mentor who will change our lives. Have you had such a person?
I had a few people who changed my life in a very profound way, but the one who probably had the biggest influence was my uncle, my mother’s brother, because he put me on the path to moving to Japan in the 90s. I asked him if I should learn German or Spanish. And he said to me, “That’s the wrong question for your generation. The question should be: ‘Should I learn Japanese or Chinese?’ Then he asked me, “Do you have a good musical ear?” And I said, “No, I have a very bad musical ear.” And then he told me that I should learn Japanese because I will never speak Chinese well. It was a two-minute chat, you know, by the pool while we were on vacation in the summer at his house. And that moment for me changed my life because I started to learn Japanese, I ended up loving it, then I went to Japan, and being in Japan was a big factor for me to go at business school. It opened my mind because I really learned French culture while living in Japan. I believe we are all biased by our culture where we were raised. It’s hard for us to really understand our own culture until we get out of it.
Do you think America will always be the leader in creating great new drugs?
For the foreseeable future, I think he will remain the leader in drug discovery. It’s very interesting to think about what could happen in China, because the level of investment they’re making in technology, including enabling AI, is really at a very intensive level. And so I don’t want to be arrogant about where we might be, you know, in 10, 20 years.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work?
I love to ski. I’ve done that a lot lately. I think this year I have already skied twice. I grew up in Marseille, so I love the sea. I like sailing, boating and kayaking. My wife will say you’ll never know the real Stephane until you see him on a boat.
Do you keep a boat somewhere?
We have a boat in the south of France. We kept a house there when we moved to the United States in 2008. We wanted a place that does not move for the children, since we move to many countries, Belgium, France, the United States.
What is your favorite book since childhood?
I would say it would be The little Prince. I have read it several times in my life. And the book I read every summer as an adult is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Should we all expect to get a fourth COVID vaccine?
I believe that as fall approaches, we will need to get a fall 22 booster around the same time we get our flu shot. I’ll get mine.
What about a yearly booster after that?
I think for people at risk, yes. And I define that as people over 50; people with comorbidities; police, medical personnel, etc. And I would say anyone else who doesn’t want to be sick. You know, I’ve been getting the flu shot for decades. I will be 50 this summer. When I was 25, I took it not because I was afraid of being hospitalized or dying, but simply that I did not want to be sick.
I know that all the heads of state in the world will answer your phone call. Does this feeling of power surprise you?
It’s very interesting. I don’t think it’s power. I see it as a way to collaborate, to protect people, in the sense that the only reason I would call a head of state now is because we have something to say about a booster or a variant. I don’t see that as a power; I see this as an access to collaboration.
You and your family are very charitable. Is your focus in this regard limited to specific areas? Or are you a benefactor on a case-by-case basis?
Our goal is to try to make the world a better place, my wife and I, so we try to focus on people who have fewer opportunities. We think a lot about inequalities in education. We think of children from disadvantaged neighborhoods, helping them to go to school or university. We help the homeless. And focusing on the environment is another way that we think will really help the planet in a very big way.
We are all social animals. Is it time for us to resume our so-called normal lives?
I think so. We have all the tools now. We have masks, we have tests, we have vaccines and we have treatments. I think people should be responsible for their risk tolerance and respect their friends, colleagues and loved ones. Before going to see grandma, take a COVID test at home because you could be asymptomatic and carry the virus. If you are in a place where the rate is very low per 100,000 people, as long as you are vaccinated, your risk of becoming seriously ill is very low. You might be more likely to die in a car accident or something else. . People have to start managing their lives, because we have all the tools.
Follow the money (and the real estate) and you’ll see why the industry is booming in the Bay State.
Value of Ginkgo Bioworks, in dollars, as of September 2021, when it went public in one of the largest SPAC mergers to date.
Square Feet of Office and Industrial Space in Greater Boston Currently Underway
converted into laboratories.
Number of workers in the life sciences sector in the Bay State.
208 322 621
Number of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States as of the end of February 2022.
Amount of capital, in dollars, invested in the Massachusetts biotech industry during the first quarter of 2021.
Average annual salary in biotechnology in Boston, in dollars.