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This Immigrant-Founded Biotech Company is Paving the Way for a Vaccine

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Everybody is waiting for the coronavirus vaccine, and even though scientists all around the world are conducting important studies, only a few pharmaceutical companies are moving ahead with their research. One of them is Moderna, a U.S.- based company who is currently the frontrunner in the global pharma race. But, did you know that Moderna was actually co-founded by an immigrant?

That’s right, Noubar Afeyan, now the chairman of Moderna, is a two-time immigrant. Afeyan, who was born in Lebanon, first came to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in biochemical engineering as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after spending his teenage years in Canada with his family. Since then, he has invested in many successful startups, created over 200 patents and started dozens of successful companies including Moderna, which he co founded in 2009. 

“I view innovation as just intellectual immigration,” Afeyan said in an interview with Forbes. “When you leave the comforts of what you know, expose yourself to criticism, go to something that people don’t believe is possible, persist, persist, persist, until you make it habitable so that people come and tell you how obvious it was years later. That is what an immigrant does.”

Since its conception, Moderna has created a large number of vaccines and prescription drugs, including vaccines and therapeutics that treat infectious diseases, immuno-oncology and cardiovascular diseases. Moderna’s Modality-Centric Approach, which is used to create drugs that direct cells in the body to produce proteins to fight or prevent disease, has positioned them as one of the most successful biotech companies in the world. 

Of course, Afeyan is not the only immigrant running the show within the company. Stéphane Bancel, who immigrated to America from France, currently serves as Moderna’s CEO. Bancel, who is a Harvard graduate, has expressed his gratitude for the sense of achievement he has gotten from working with the company. 

“Advancing to the clinic certainly was the most gratifying milestone,” Bancel said back in 2016. “We are now a major step closer to delivering on the promise of transformative mRNA science to bring breakthrough medicines to patients across a vast array of diseases, including infectious diseases, rare diseases, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, among others.”

Other immigrants in important leadership roles within the company include Chief Medical Officer Tal Zaks, who is from Israel, Chief Digital and Operational Excellence Officer Marcello Damiani, who immigrated from France, and Chief Technical Operations and Quality Officer Juan Andres, who is originally from Spain. Together, with the other 800 or more full-time employees, they are racing to complete their most ambitious project — getting a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible – by the end of this year or the beginning of 2021.

“At the end of the day, we think of it as, what can be done to go as fast as possible that money can allow?” Afeyan said. “Everything we can do with resources—given the impact this disease is having on the economic well-being of nations around the world—the kind of money you need to do this quickly is a very, very tiny percentage of that.”

As of now, Moderna is in the middle of 15 non-COVID clinical development programs and, although no drugs have been approved yet, Afeyan said he is hoping to start crucial late-stage vaccine trials this summer. But, if there is one thing he wants people to take away from his success, is the value of the immigrant experience. 

“I would invite people to think of the immigrant mindset when they are doing these kinds of innovation, particularly cutting-edge innovation, and recognize that it is a strength that the kind of resilience, the adaptivity, all the things that we think are rarefied skills in an entrepreneur, that’s what every immigrant has to go through.”

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.