Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold

A decade ago, Stéphane Bancel took a gamble and joined a fledgling start-up working on an unproven new technology. The gamble paid off with the rise of Covid-19.

When Stéphane Bancel left his job at a French medical diagnostics firm to join Moderna in 2011, he told his wife he thought the new job had only a “5% chance” of working out, says The Sunday Times. Moderna then was a heavily loss-making fledgling start-up, majoring on an experimental and unproven technology – messenger RNA. Yet a decade and a deadly virus on, it’s clear his career gamble has paid off. As one associate observes, “the pandemic came almost as a blessing to prove the technology”.

Big, hairy, audacious goals

The Boston-based company was the first in America to begin trials of a vaccine based on mRNA (the same gene-based approach used by Germany’s BioNTech) and has since become “one of the leaders in the fight against Covid-19”. Unlike AstraZeneca – an early investor which has rolled out its own vaccine at cost – Moderna is making “serious money from its contribution”, charging between $33 and $37 per dose as it distributes hundreds of millions of jabs worldwide. Since mid-March 2020, its shares have risen by more than 500%, taking its stockmarket value to $57bn. Its French boss, who has an 8% stake, is now worth an estimated $4.6bn.

The challenge of producing a vaccine from scratch in double-quick time was meat and drink to Bancel, 48, who thrives on setting himself ambitious challenges, says the Financial Times. Long before the virus even had a name, Bancel spent his Christmas break tracking its movements in China. According to Moderna’s second-in-command, Stephen Hoge, who has worked with him almost since Moderna’s inception, quite often Bancel would outline some “big, hairy, audacious goal… and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what planet you’re on’. He’s... expansive in his thinking”. Unusually for a biotech chief, he’s an engineer, not a biologist. The point, says a former colleague, is that “he has this capacity to work like a dog... to learn about science”.

Born in 1972, Bancel grew up in Marseilles and might be described as the perfect professional amalgam of his parents – his father was an engineer and his mother a doctor. Bancel had a “precocious interest in maths and science” and “tinkered with computers” as a child, notes a 2016 Harvard Innovation Labs profile. He “imagined he would one day work in technology”. After studying chemical and biomolecular engineering at École Centrale Paris, Bancel moved to the US to do a masters in biological engineering at Minnesota University. His first job was at diagnostics firm BioMérieux, which sponsored an MBA at Harvard Business School. At 29, he joined the US pharmaceuticals firm Eli Lilly, before returning to lead BioMérieux when he was just 34. A few years later, he took his gamble with Moderna.

The Amazon of mRNA

“Bancel attributes a great deal of his success as an executive to the breadth of the liberal arts education he received in France.” Others think it owes more to Silicon Valley. A “master fundraiser” in the days before Moderna’s blockbusting 2018 float, he used to talk about admiring Uber’s “platform” strategy, says the FT. Some of Uber boss Travis Kalanick’s controversial modus operandi may have rubbed off too. Moderna’s “hard-charging culture shook some former employees used to working at biotechs that operate more like academia”. His ambition hasn’t changed: he still wants to make Moderna, which has 23 products in development, “the Amazon of mRNA”. 

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