By Amy Feldman
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Forbes) — “I constantly say things that are unreasonable and seemingly crazy,” says Noubar Afeyan, founder of venture firm Flagship Pioneering and chairman of Moderna. What if, he asked his researchers, microorganisms living in our guts–the “microbiome”–could help cure cancer? What if red blood cells could transport drugs along with oxygen? What if not all viruses were bad? And what if, he asked a decade ago, messenger RNA (mRNA) could be the basis of therapeutics?
“I said, ‘You’re crazy, it’s never going to work,’” recalls Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel of his first conversations with Afeyan about the subject in 2011. But as Afeyan, an Armenian immigrant by way of Lebanon and Canada, turned on the charm Bancel, who was then CEO of French diagnostics maker BioMérieux, relented and agreed to come to Moderna. “Noubar’s genius was not trying to force the issue in my brain, but to make me think that it could change the world and that it was worth the risk,” he says.
Thanks to its mRNA Covid vaccine, Moderna now is a household name, with 12-month revenues north of $11 billion and a market cap approaching $100 billion. Afeyan, 59, is one of five billionaires associated with it, with an estimated $2.9 billion fortune (Bancel is another, worth some $7.5 billion). For Afeyan, though, the hope is that Moderna isn’t a one-off stratospheric success, but just one of dozens of companies that could break out from the work he’s been doing at Cambridge, Mass.-based Flagship for the past two decades.
Flagship is a venture capital firm with a total of $17 billion in assets that operates more like an incubator. Through it Afeyan is churning out scientific ideas in biotech, the life sciences and agriculture with the goal of creating and nurturing a half dozen or more companies each year. Most of those companies grow out of those what-if questions that Afeyan loves. “Every one of our companies is born to aspire to what Moderna has done,” he told Forbes during an interview at Flagship’s offices overlooking the Charles River. “Why wouldn’t you think you can actually change the world in the particular area you are working on?”
Since Flagship’s launch, Afeyan has helped start some 70 companies. Each began life as little more than an idea in a lab. If the idea proves promising enough, Flagship invests, and it operates for a time as a wholly owned subsidiary. The best of these subsidiaries will eventually take on outside investors before (hopefully) going public. So far, 30 of Afeyan’s companies have completed the entire process. While Moderna is by far its largest, other publicly traded graduates include Denali Therapeutics (market cap $6.3 billion), which is working on treatments for neurodegenerative diseases; Quanterix (market cap $2.1 billion), which makes tools to measure proteins for disease detection and treatment; and Rubius (market cap $1.3 billion), which uses red blood cells as treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases.