Imperial hosted Dr Noubar Afeyan, CEO of Flagship Pioneering and chairman of Moderna for a talk on innovation.
The event, hosted by the Institute of Global Health Innovation, was opened by IGHI co-director Professor Ara Darzi who began the lecture by inviting the audience to imagine “a world liberated from disease”.
"It starts with the belief that it is possible to change the world,” Prof Darzi added.
Dr Noubar Afeyan is the founder of Flagship Pioneering, a company that creates bioplatform companies to transform human health and sustainability. Bioplatforms are biology-based technologies that can create multiple medicines or products for agriculture or sustainability. To date, the company has been responsible for fostering over 100 scientific ventures.
"Most breakthrough innovations are discarded early on. We ask experts to judge these innovations in their earliest form - but is there another way to think about this?" Dr Noubar Afeyan Flagship Pioneering
An entrepreneur and biochemical engineer himself, Dr Afeyan holds more than 100 patents and has co-founded more than 80 life science and technology start-ups during his 33-year career. He is also co-founder and chairman of the board of Moderna, which is harnessing a type of genetic code called messenger RNA to develop vaccines and other breakthrough medicines. Their COVID-19 vaccine, approved in January 2021, has been used worldwide to help fight the pandemic.
“Moderna was able to design its vaccine just two days after receiving the genetic sequence for the coronavirus,” Prof Darzi said. “After one year, one billion doses were created, saving countless lives.”
Dr Afeyan started his talk by describing the need to break away from the traditional model of innovation:
“The way the world thinks about innovation is by placing bets and judging which innovations are going to work, and then discarding the ones that don’t have potential.
“Most breakthrough innovations are discarded early on. We ask experts to judge these innovations in their earliest form - but is there another way to think about this?”
Making scientific leaps of faith
The talk focussed on Moderna’s path to creating the mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, Flagship Pioneering’s unique approach to innovation and Dr Afeyan’s own reflections on the future of biotech.
To create pioneering companies, he emphasised that using faith – belief in something without facts – to drive innovation and ideas is the key to Flagship Pioneering’s approach:
"We choose to start with a leap of faith. Faith is often used in a derogative way. But we start by asking questions. If you work backwards, it gives you hypotheses you might never have had."
"When COVID-19 happened, a lot of the underlying science and platform investment already developed was directed overnight to making a vaccine against an unknown virus." Dr Noubar Afeyan Flagship Pioneering
This was also the approach used when developing Moderna’s mRNA vaccines. He noted that asking questions such as “what if patients could make their own drugs?” led them to develop the groundwork technologies required for their COVID-19 vaccine.
“When COVID-19 happened, a lot of the underlying science and platform investment already developed was directed overnight to making a vaccine against an unknown virus.
“What we learnt from this is that if you can get on the playing field, if you have a solution that is even 10% good, you can improve it.”
Breakthrough discoveries in preventative medicine
Looking to the future, Dr Afeyan predicted that immune medicine will see “large advances” in the coming years because “COVID-19 taught us how little we know about the immune system”.
He also looks forward to a future where health and medicine are thought about in a preemptive sense, and not in a reactionary way.
“We do very little upstream medicine because it isn’t rewarded. If we can catch disease early and delay it, at a minimum, we could have a lot more impact at a lot less cost.”
The event was followed by a Q&A where Dr Afeyan was asked how to gain support for an early scientific idea.
His advice: “Be straightforward and honest. The average person may not believe in your project, but you aren’t looking for everyone to believe, just a few people. These are your early adopters.”
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