Moderna: When Biotech Thinks It's Tech
Just as the sun rises and sets around the Silicon Valley greats: Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Bezos, the Moderna universe is structured entirely around its ambitious leader, Stephane Bancel. There’s a tendency to think of medical and pharma-related companies as clinical, planned, and methodical when many of these multi-billion capital ventures are… ventures. And Stephane Bancel is not the first biotech venture capitalist to try on Steve Jobs' signature look for size. The first big success of Stephane Bancel that put Moderna on the map was when partnered Moderna with AstraZeneca – making it the first time a pharmaceutical company invested so much ($240M) in a biotech company without any human studies. This started a “gold rush” of people who wanted in Moderna, sight unseen. Moderna’s culture of secrecy and salesmanship has lured investors to contribute millions of dollars with almost no clinical trial results or studies to show what Moderna is doing. “It’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes,” said a former Moderna scientist. “They’re running an investment firm, and then hopefully it also develops a drug that’s successful.”
Within Moderna there’s a high employee turnover rate. Some recruits for hire are asked to sign an NDA before their first interview. Heads of departments with excellent careers and longevity in the field tend to resign from Moderna around the same 18-month marker. In interviews from more than 20 previous employees, Stat News summarizes Bancel’s ego and fixation on Moderna’s valuation (approaching $5 billion) is prohibiting its advancement into the loftier fields that it advertised it would a decade ago. It’s not just Bancel’s unapologetically abusive emails that inhibit advancement, but frequent on-the-spot firings create an “if the science doesn’t work, make it work” system. As a result, Moderna isn’t publishing studies or moving products into testing stages like other biotech counterparts. According to Stat, Moderna is advertising the potential of their treatments on CNN before it goes to accredited scientific journals. A clear marker of distress for Moderna isn’t just its high turnover, secrecy, and sketchy CEO, but a big shift away from its original goals to find innovative cures. A decade ago Moderna garnered attention and capital by boasting of its ability to deliver the next generation of biotech. The plan was to use mRNA science to create protein therapies (similar to Humira).
From an industry standpoint, vaccines are a low-budget, unexciting, production in comparison to the intended protein therapies. This marks the shift away from pioneers in the field to smaller, simpler, mass production, goals. It would be like raising money to build driverless cars, and then making knock-off Hondas. Stat reports: “Most biotech startups focus on one or two leading drug candidates at first, pushing them through human trials before turning to another target. Moderna, by contrast, has nearly 100 projects going at once... Bancel explained, flashing a smile as though he himself was bemused by the idea’s simplicity that with mRNA, “you can just turn the crank and get a lot of products going into development.” When biotech companies think that they are tech companies – things can get a little wild. When someone like Bancel who has no medical background describes mRNA technology as being just like software in an interview, he’s referring to his business model instead of the treatment.