US biotech company: who is behind Moderna?


The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has now also approved the vaccine from the US manufacturer Moderna. Who is actually behind this company, which was founded only ten years ago?

By Lothar Gries,

If you believe Stephane Bancel, the head of Moderna, it only took his researchers two days to develop the basis for the vaccine against Covid-19. This already happened in January of last year after the Chinese authorities published the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.

That it happened so quickly is a result of previous years of research at Harvard University in the US state of Massachusetts. There, the Canadian stem cell biologist Derrick Rossi had developed a method to modify the so-called messenger RNA so that it can transmit messages to human cells, for example to activate the immune system in the event of an intruder such as the coronavirus.

The scope recognized

Rossi quickly realized the scope of his discoveries and began to raise funds to start his own biotechnology company called “ModeRNA”. In September 2010 the time had come for the company to be entered in the commercial register. The immunologist Tim Springer, also a Harvard professor, became the first investor. Other scientists and scholars did not hesitate long and joined the new company.

This also included the Lebanese-American venture capital investor Noubar Afeyan. He brought the Frenchman Bancel to Moderna in 2011 and offered him the post of boss just two years later. Bancel had previously worked for the American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly for a number of years, including as country manager in Belgium.

Moderna boss was initially skeptical

Initially, however, Bancel is said not to have been convinced by the unproven mRNA technology. As the “New York Times” claims to have learned, before joining Moderna, Bancel confided to his wife that he estimated the chances of success of the new mRNA method to be only five percent. But if the bet was successful, it would prove to be groundbreaking for all of medicine.

It did take a while to convince established and prominent pharmaceutical companies of the mRNA method. But in March 2013 Moderna was able to show a success with a deal with AstraZeneca. The Swedish-British group agreed a five-year collaboration with Moderna to discover, develop and commercialize mRNA therapeutics for the treatment of cardiovascular, metabolic and kidney diseases as well as specific cancer targets. The agreement also included an upfront payment of $ 240 million to Moderna.

Partnerships and an IPO poured money into the coffers

In January 2014, Moderna and the US company Alexion Pharmaceuticals signed a $ 125 million contract. Alexion paid Moderna $ 100 million for ten product options to develop rare disease drugs using mRNA technology.

In 2018, the IPO followed, which brought the Harvard professors’ company half a billion dollars into the coffers. The company was quickly traded as an insider tip on Wall Street. The market value climbed to seven billion dollars at the beginning of 2020 – with annual sales of just 100 million dollars.

Rise to the stock market darling

Moderna then succeeded in becoming the world’s stock exchange darling last year. At a meeting with US President Donald Trump in March, CEO Bancel announced that Moderna already had a possible corona vaccination. The company then received $ 950 million from the US government to accelerate development. In addition, the US authorities committed to buy 200 million doses of Moderna’s new vaccine – for more than three billion dollars.

Since then, the company, like BioNTech from Mainz, has risen to become a stock exchange darling, the share price has increased more than sevenfold in the past year and at times climbed to 50 billion dollars. A gigantic valuation for a company with a net loss of $ 234 million in the third quarter of 2020. Since then, there has been some profit-taking on the stock market, which has pushed the price back down a bit.

Potential to become a global player

However, since the successful development of the Covid vaccine, mRNA technology has also been seen as a great promise for other areas, which keeps the stock exchange price high. If it works with vaccines, then it could also work for other applications, my fund manager.

In fact, the company is now testing a good dozen products in clinical studies, including a number of other vaccines, cancer drugs and drugs for rare metabolic disorders in addition to the Covid vaccine. So it’s not just the success of the Covid vaccine that makes the company so valuable.

Most experts acknowledge that Moderna has the potential to become a global player in the pharmaceutical industry – if mRNA technology prevails. The rise in the share price made the company’s founders billionaires. The wealth of CEO Bancel alone is now estimated at 3.5 billion dollars because he holds around nine percent of Moderna shares.

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