Creative Collaboration: Q&A with Stéphane Bancel

Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
min Podcast
June 30, 2020
22 min
Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said his first challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic was to get alignment around shared facts and a shared vision to move forward.

Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series: On and Beyond the Frontlines of Covid-19

Stéphane Bancel is CEO of Moderna, which is at the forefront of developing a vaccine against COVID-19. Stéphane has served as Moderna's Chief Executive Officer and member of its Board since 2011. He also serves on the Board of directors of Qiagen N.V. and is a venture partner at Flagship Pioneering.

Recently, Stéphane spoke with Dana Krueger and Rose Mistri-Somers, members of the Healthcare sector at Russell Reynolds Associates. Stéphane shared how the biotechnology company has mobilized its force to create a vaccine more quickly than ever before.

The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.

Rose Mistri-Somers: Stéphane, thank you so much for joining us today. Given Moderna's prominent role in helping resolve the COVID crisis, tell us what it’s been like for you and your team in recent months.

Stéphane Bancel: It has been surreal. Like everybody else, we heard late December, early January that there was this new infectious agent. We didn’t know at that point if it was a bacteria or virus. Then we got to know it was a virus, then a coronavirus and a new one.

We went to work on the vaccine right away. The sequence with the virus’ genetic information was published online on January, 11 by the Chinese authorities, and by January, 13, we had finished designing a vaccine and were getting it ready to go into clinical study.

At the beginning, we thought it was going to be an outbreak, like SARS or Zika, not an epidemic. We were just kind of running, and then there was a week that really changed how I felt about the whole situation. It was during the week of Davos, at the end of January. I had the chance to be very close to two epidemiologists, or infectious disease experts, from two large organizations that were at Davos. I spoke to them several times per day, and sometimes they would share with me,on their phones, the emails and the data they were getting from China.

Everyone knows this now, but what became clear in that week was that the infection rate was very, very high – it was massively contagious – and the death rate was also very high. When you are in infectious disease, those are the two numbers that you always look at in the beginning. Of course, as you know, as we saw in the media, it was a big guess at that point because the data was not clean and everybody was trying to figure out things in it, but that's the week it was very clear to me.

The first leadership challenge was getting alignment around shared facts and shared vision. I was in Switzerland and my team was back in Boston. My team spent a few weeks just kind of saying, “You're crazy.” And then it was very interesting, it was one of these typical things in a leadership team where one person starts to believe, and then the rest fall in and then everyone is realizing we’ve lost a few weeks and saying we need to go faster.

Ironically, we were planning to run a mock pandemic in Q2 of 2020, where the NIH would send us a sequence of a virus we didn’t know, and then see how quickly we could make a vaccine for them to run a clinical study in the US. We've been talking with the NIH, with Dr Fauci’s team, and working with them for two years on other vaccines, including one for another coronavirus and the MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

We told the NIH last fall we thought we could do something in about two months – which we thought was science fiction at the time. Just to give you a sense, for the SARS virus it took Dr. Fauci’s team 20 months to go from the sequence of the SARS virus to starting a clinical trial. But for COVID, we ended up doing it in 63 days, i.e., two months.

So that was the first piece. Sometimes people ask me, “Did you analyze all the risks of doing it?” and I have to tell them, “No.” How could we? There is this virus, people are dying, and our job is to make vaccines. You don’t do a big strategic analysis when people are dying, you just chase the solution.

Now, we have been so focused and so absorbed by the work, the team has been working 7 days a week for 5 months. My biggest worry at this point is burnout. I know we still have another 6 to 9 months, easily, to get the vaccine to the finish line. And then I think about my manufacturing team, which has to increase capacity 1,000-fold in one year. Whether you make cars, or peanuts, or whatever, making 1,000 times more in a 12-month time frame is kind of crazy.

Dana Krueger: It's just fascinating to hear this story. You were saying the first leadership challenge was getting this alignment of vision, which you were obviously successful in doing. And from then on, you were in completely uncharted territory; setting the pace,as well as forging the path. Tell us a little bit more about some of the changes you made in how you lead, given the brand new environment you are now in.

Stéphane Bancel: If you ask my team, I think they would say I spend much more time listening than I did before. And it’s because we are in this uncharted territory, and I want to try to not be in the weeds myself. Initially, I was in the weeds when I had to convince people to do things. So what I have tried to do over time is to kind of elevate myself to have the ability to think, because as you said, we are doing things that we have never done before, and that nobody has done at this speed before.

Another thing we have done is invest a lot of time upfront to get alignment. I had to do it with my team internally, and we’ve also done it with the NIH and the FDA. Sometimes it is very counterintuitive that investing time at the beginning is going to make you go much faster. Especially in a crisis, you just want to get moving, you want to be in action. But if people are totally misaligned you waste so much time.

I have to give a lot of kudos to the FDA and to the NIH, where people have done a lot of work across all of our vaccines. This is our tenth vaccine in the clinic, and we put nine vaccines out with the same technology. What we have done in flu or in Zika vaccines can be used to understand the parameter of the safety at different doses of antibody concentration and so on, because we have an information-based platform. The agency spent a lot of time going back through all our talks and all our data for previous vaccines, looking at it as a whole to understand, “Okay, what do we know about this platform? What do we not know?” That's also required us to invest the time to establish trust, so that we could work from the same ground of data, so we could go faster.

Because we're making a medicine, safety is our number one priority. We took an incredible amount of financial risk, but we cannot take a risk on safety. If you look at the speed at which we’re going into clinical trials, Phase I is on top of Phase II, which is on top of Phase III. Without going into all the details, you might think what we are doing is not safe. But the thing that is always determining whether or not we go to the next phase is the safety data. We've gone to Phase II without having neutralizing antibody data, meaning, is the vaccine working? – but we had all the safety data. We knew by going from 45 people to 600 people, we were not taking an undue risk in exposing more people to virus with this vaccine candidate.

That's another reason that I've tried to not be in the weeds anymore, to allow me to be the safeguard of the team. They have to do so much, so fast and if everybody is just running, running, running, this is where you have a higher chance of making a big mistake.

Dana Krueger: Moderna is known for having a very tight-knit and highly engaged executive team, and so you probably spend a lot of time together already. But now, as you're navigating this crisis, what are you learning about your team? How has the dynamic changed, and what are you observing about your leaders at this time?

Stéphane Bancel: Yes – the team has been remarkable. Everybody is so mission-driven, and there is no other product that we make that is more on mission. We have 23 products in development and all of them, from cancer to rare genetic disease, are super important because people are hurting every day. But this one is very personal to all of us, so the team has been incredibly engaged.

One thing we all struggle with is living in this Zoom world. People are not two-dimensional, and when you have a large group of people, it’s hard to get the body language and the informal discussions. Part of what the team has done to climb many mountains since we started the company is build a camaraderie and trust. That means everyone on this team feels super comfortable going to somebody to say, “I don't know this, I need help,” or “I'm not sure about this one. What do you think?” This informality is easy when you are two offices away from somebody, or you go get a coffee and see somebody and you think, “I'm going to go ask Tracey what she thinks.”

This informality is important when you go at very high speeds, or when there's a lot of ambiguity and a lot of uncertainty. What we're doing has never been done before by us at this speed, and I don’t think by anybody else in the world at this speed. And so there are a lot of things that we have to invent. This type of tool [Zoom] is good to do check-ins and be very task-driven. But I think the process of creating or inventing is very hard. Sometimes we need to whiteboard an idea, where I might go write something or draw something and somebody else takes my pen and builds on it.

I also worry a bit about the introverts who don't necessarily reach out to people. Where the physical isolation might play to their natural strengths and tendencies, it might not be good for the productivity and their impact and their efficiency with our colleagues. When you are in the office, you are mingling and running into each other at the cafeteria or in the coffee room, or you walk by somebody's office and can just stop and you say hello for 5 minutes. That is what I’m missing the most, the natural informal discussions.

Dana Krueger: If we all take a step back, I think most of us believe that our world has changed, at least for the medium term, in a very material way. What, if any, key leadership skills are you thinking about trying to develop in your organization for the future we’re entering and are those different from 6 months ago?

Stéphane Bancel: What I like to always think about is how do you get the best out of people? It goes back for me to some of the basic things, which is motivation and energy. There are things in my job that don't give me any energy, and there are things that give me a lot of energy. And the question in this world is: How do you figure out what's the balance between the give and take on people’s energy level? I don't know yet. For an introvert and extrovert; for a scientist, for an MD, for all the different kinds of capabilities that we need to work together. The creative collaboration process worries me in this world. I don't think that we're getting bad at it, I just don't think that we are getting the best version.

And I’m optimistic, so I still do believe we get the vaccine or several vaccines out at the end of this year or early next year. I mean, we got lucky on two pieces, which I like to remind my friends and my family when they see the glass half-empty right now. The first is that this is not a very complex virus. Think about it. HIV was discovered in early 1980s, 40 years ago, and there’s still no vaccine against it. Think about how much worse it would be, morale-wise, if Dr. Fauci was telling Congress or a press briefing saying, I'm sorry to tell you it might take years, maybe five years before we get a vaccine.

And the other one is that so far it seems – I will be cautious because we're still learning a lot – that most children are spared from this virus. Think about the Spanish flu 100 years ago where they were losing as many children as we are losing the elderly. Think right now if the death toll was twice what it is and half of them were children and you already know people who have lost children. And you might be worried about losing your child or niece or nephew – that would be just horrific. So I think we're going to get back to a normal world. Is it going to be changed? Of course. But once the vaccines are out and enough people are vaccinated, we won’t need to wear masks to feel safe.

Dana Krueger: I see that future that you're painting, but I think we've also learned a lot in this period, about how we do business or come up with innovations. What have you learned about Moderna’s ways of working that might change your operating model or even your business models going forward? And what does that mean for leadership?

Stéphane Bancel: I agree with you 100 percent that a lot of things are going to change even when we go back to a normal life from a health and safety standpoint. The pieces are not clear yet and Tracey, our head of HR, and I spent a lot of time talking about it, which is how do things work on the other side of this? Even the Zoom experience; it's easier when most people are working from home because everybody's easier to access. What is your future going to be like, if I'm going to my office to spend four hours a day on Zoom? Or do we decide two days a week, we all go to the office? But then, does it make sense to have an office when, five days a week, including weekends, the office is empty? It is going to be a real struggle for all of us as leaders to figure out how do you make this work in the new world?

An easy example I recently talked about with my Investor Relations team: For three months now, I’ve done all my investor interaction on Zoom; all the conferences, all the bank conversations, etc. And so as I thought about it, I realized going to LA for a day to see investors makes no sense. I already know most of them, they know me. I have a huge Mac desktop, so I see people in real size, in HD quality. I told my team. I'm not getting back on the plane to do investor meetings. Maybe I would go to meet someone for the first time, but for somebody I've known for years – why would I waste my time, why would I spend the money, why would I have a bad impact on the environment, and why would I get myself jet lagged, which lowers my immune system and my performance?

There are a lot of things that are going to change. But you still have the innovation, the creativity process as we talked about a few minutes ago that’s really hard to do with this medium. But I don't know how to do it if I only have half the team in the room and the other half is on Zoom.

There are a number of things like this, where we have to figure out what do we do on Zoom and what do we set as a norm that has to be in the office, but then how do you make it financially viable?

I think we're going to learn a lot, there will be a lot of trial and error. It is going to really depend a lot on who in the workforce is impacted. I can see having potentially different norms between somebody who is, let’s say, in Finance dealing with invoices all day and can work from anywhere with the right technology, and somebody who is part of a cross-functional team where you need an engineer and scientist and a clinician and they need to collaborate.

Right now, we're focusing on how do we get the vaccine to the finish line. But we’re starting to have a lot of discussions around those themes because the world is going to change.

Dana Krueger: Well, actually, that was going to be our final question. What do the next three to six months look like for you all?

Stéphane Bancel: On the clinical front, the top priority is how do we get Phase III started, with 30,000 people in July? How do we recruit people as fast as we can, and how do we ensure diversity? Because you know as Tal, our Chief Medical Officer, says, if it's only people who are working from home that get the vaccine, it's going to be useless because most of them won't get infected. If nobody gets infected, we would never have efficacy results. And so we really need to recruit people who are literally on the front lines, people working in supermarkets, in Amazon warehouses, and similar. We also need a lot of diversity in backgrounds and ethnicity, that's super important so we understand how well the vaccine works.

That's on the clinical side. On the manufacturing side, we have the incredible challenge of making a 1,000x capacity increase in the next 12 months. They have to do something I’ve really never heard of happening before in any industry. There's a big focus on getting the vaccine to the finish line as safely as we can, as fast as we can, because the world is dying and we know every day counts.

Dana Krueger: Thank you, Stéphane, for your insights and thank you to your team for everything you're doing on the frontier for all of us.

Stéphane Bancel: Thank you so much for your kind words and for the invite. I'm super proud of the team. They are really doing an incredible job and we're going to continue to push as hard as we can.