Noubar Afeyan was born to Armenian parents in Lebanon. At the age of 13, he immigrated with his family to Canada and attended college there. Noubar was accepted to a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at the time the only school with an advanced program in biochemical engineering.
After earning his Ph.D. at the age of 24, Noubar started his first company. “I was naïve to think I could start a company with so little experience,” he told me in an interview. But it worked out. For 10 years, Noubar Afeyan headed PerSeptive Biosystems, which became the number two company in the bio-instrumentation field before it was acquired by Perkin Elmer/Applera Corporation in 1998. While CEO of PerSeptive Biosystems he founded or cofounded five more companies.
In 1999, Noubar evaluated the way his startups were formed – and startups in general – and thought perhaps the often disjointed, “trial and error” approach typical of startups could be reduced to something more systematic and organized. That’s when he founded Flagship Ventures, which develops new companies through its in-house division VentureLabs. It also invests in startups.
VentureLabs, which Noubar oversees as senior managing partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, takes a unique approach. It conducts its own research and forms new companies after the research has started to bear fruit. Using this approach, Flagship Ventures and VentureLabs have launched dozens of startup companies, primarily in the life sciences and sustainability.
“We spend a lot of time at Flagship Ventures identifying problems and coming up with solutions that produce intellectual property that can be used to create innovations and ultimately new approaches and new companies,” he said. Noubar has over 100 patents to his name.
Moderna Therapeutics, which Noubar cofounded and helps lead as chairman, may be Flagship Ventures’ most successful startup. Founded in 2009, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company is already valued at $3 billion and employs over 300 people.
Breakthroughs in using messenger RNA or mRNA have fueled growth and raised expectations for Moderna Therapeutics. CNBC named the company “number one” on its 2015 Disruptor 50 list. “Instead of making protein medicines in factories very far away, what we are trying to do is to inject you with messenger RNA so that your own body will make the protein” said Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s French-born president and CEO, in a 2015 CNBC interview.
In January 2016, Moderna announced it had become a clinical stage company when it launched its first human trial, a Phase I study to treat patients with infectious diseases with investigational mRNA therapeutics in Europe. The ultimate goal is to treat patients with “infectious diseases, rare diseases, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.”
Noubar Afeyan explains the promise of messenger RNA by comparing it to the more controversial concept of changing an individual’s DNA. He notes changes to DNA can be essentially permanent, like hardware. By contrast, messenger RNA is more like software: it can be used to perform a task and then can be programmed to disappear.
Moderna Therapeutics is a company with the potential to benefit the health of millions of people. The irony is it may never have come into being if Noubar Afeyan had not been accepted to MIT. Noubar says what he liked about the atmosphere at MIT as an international student is that the school was merit-based. “Nobody felt they had an advantage over you just because they were born in the United States and you weren’t. It was a very good environment and remains so.”