Stéphane Bancel is a highly accomplished CEO and visionary leader who currently heads Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna. With his outstanding executive acumen, he has transformed Moderna into a leading biotech company, particularly known for its pivotal role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic through its groundbreaking mRNA-based vaccine. Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine received full FDA approval in January 2022 and has significantly impacted the world’s fight against the pandemic. Bancel has been at the helm of Moderna since 2011 and holds a significant stake in the company. He is a seasoned healthcare executive, previously serving as the CEO of French diagnostics firm BioMérieux.
Stéphane Bancel, born in Marseille, France, was raised by parents who embodied innovation and a drive to impact the world positively. As an engineer and doctor, respectively, they instilled in him a passion for excellence and a commitment to making a difference.
Bancel’s early fascination with computers, mathematics, and science laid the foundation for his successful career in the life sciences industry. His liberal arts education, he says, “Particularly, my studies in geography gave me a unique perspective on the growing global interconnectedness of the world economy.” He adds, “Studying history has also been crucial in allowing me to navigate and operate businesses in diverse cultures and make strategic deals on an international scale.”
His journey to success in the life sciences industry took an unexpected turn after graduation from the University of Minnesota. Instead of pursuing a traditional career path for an engineering and life sciences graduate, he took a leap of faith and joined BioMérieux as a sales and marketing professional. This experience proved to be a turning point for Bancel; he says, “I enjoyed the business aspect and decided to go back to school to develop my understanding and skills in this area.”
After obtaining his education at Harvard Business School and gaining valuable experience at Eli Lilly, Bancel returned to BioMérieux, where he had previously worked in sales and marketing. Upon his return, he was appointed the Chief Executive Officer, leading the company to new heights. Reflecting on this period, Bancel says, “The whole experience was surreal.”
In 2011, Bancel transitioned from serving as CEO of BioMérieux, a company with several thousand employees and substantial revenue, to joining Moderna as its second employee. He expressed that making such a drastic change was challenging, as he initially believed the chances of success to be only 5 percent. Despite his initial doubts, Bancel clearly communicated to the founding team that the goal was to undertake a scientifically complicated task with the potential to revolutionize medicine if successful.
Bancel’s decision to join Moderna was driven by his belief in the transformative potential of messenger RNA technology in medicine. He explains, “I believed that mRNA could be a game-changer in medicine. The potential of this technology was vast because not only could it achieve what other biotech methods could do, but it also offered the ability to make proteins inside cells or at their membrane – something that traditional technology couldn’t do.” He continued, “This opened up a huge area of biology that could be targeted with drugs that couldn’t be made using other methods. If we could find a way to make this technology safe and effective, it would have the power to transform medicine forever.”
Under the exceptional leadership of Bancel, Moderna has cemented its position as a leading player in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, earning worldwide recognition and admiration. Bancel, who adopted a “10x mindset” and focused on acquiring talented individuals, explains the key to success, “The key, for me, is getting great people. It seems—it sounds—easy to say, but it’s tough to do in practice. It’s also crucial to continuously reassess the company’s goals, management team, and board to ensure alignment with the company’s future plans.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moderna demonstrated its innovative and adaptive approach to overcome the challenges and meet the pressing demand for a vaccine. Bancel, who was at the forefront of the effort, reflects on the experience, “With the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, Moderna had to race against the clock to deliver a vaccine to the public. The company had to adjust its pace and approach to the unprecedented situation, with executive-committee meetings being held more frequently and a decentralized model being implemented to allow for swift decision-making. The tireless effort and dedication of the team, who worked seven days a week and often pulled all-nighters, allowed for the achievement of the ambitious goal of delivering 100 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine within 12 months and a billion doses by the end of 2021.” He continued, “The success of Moderna in delivering the vaccine is a testament to the exceptional people that make up the company, who are driven by the mission and committed to building the best version of Moderna possible.”
The hard work and determination of the team were evident in the results of the landmark 30,000-person efficacy trial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. With only 11 out of the 15,000 vaccine recipients developing COVID-19 symptoms compared to 185 symptomatic cases in the placebo group, the vaccine achieved an efficacy rate of 94.1%, significantly exceeding expectations. The vaccine was also highly effective in preventing severe disease, with no cases among the vaccinated and 30 cases recorded in the placebo group, including one death.
Bancel concludes by emphasizing the unique approach of Moderna towards delivering impact. He explains,”At Moderna, our approach to delivering impact begins with carefully considering technology and building our own applications. We then carefully curate our team and ensure that every member of our company has access to the technology we have developed. This access is crucial and enables our employees to carry out their responsibilities, whether approving an invoice or designing a drug, from anywhere, through their company-issued mobile device. This seamless and ubiquitous digital experience is a fundamental aspect of Moderna’s culture and ethos.”