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Innovation as Inspiration: HBAP Students Engage in Live Case Study with the CEO Behind a COVID-19 Vaccine

Written by Bannon Puckett on Jan 26, 2021

Related content: Graduate Programs, Outcomes, Digital Education

“Big ideas excite people. That is how we are wired as a species. But you need to give time for those things to become a reality.”—Stéphane Bancel, CEO, Moderna

One of the many advantages of a 2U-powered program like the Harvard Business Analytics Program (HBAP) is that students receive front-row access to visionary thinking from some of today’s most innovative business leaders. In turn, that insight empowers and inspires students on their way to becoming the great business leaders of tomorrow.

Last week on LinkedIn Live, Karim Lakhani—HBAP faculty co-chair and professor of the Digital Strategy and Innovation course—led his students and several program graduates through a Harvard case study on biotech powerhouse Moderna. Participants represented a variety of industries, including several professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis: healthcare directors, digital health consultants, pharmaceutical VPs, even a surgeon. Together, they explored how Moderna leveraged artificial intelligence (AI) in its speedy development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Professor Lakhani capped the online event by moderating an interactive Q&A with none other than Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna. The result was a fascinating example of the Harvard case-study method in action, bringing 879 viewers to the public live-stream discussion in real time.

A Biotech Platform Primed to Meet the Moment

The case study traced Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Moderna’s evolution from its modest 2010 beginnings, as a digital-first enterprise with an in-house manufacturing facility, to joining “big pharma” players like Pfizer and AstraZeneca in successfully developing a COVID-19 vaccine merely 10 years later. Though the company had never brought a single drug to market before, Moderna was able to engineer a vaccine candidate and ship it for preliminary Phase 1 clinical testing at breakneck speed—shattering a previous 20-month industry record down 90%, to just two months. Moderna’s secret? According to Bancel, it’s being “a technology company that just happens to do biology.”

Event participants learned how Moderna invested heavily in process engineering from the start to configure its entire digital infrastructure in the cloud, automate as many activities as possible, streamline data collection and input, and optimize its accessibility across departments. Only then, Bancel explained, could the company begin to focus on algorithmic modeling, system-wide AI integration, and transforming drug manufacturing into a digital operation.

With its core systems in place, Moderna was able to take an innovative approach to using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that carry a genetic sequence, and lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), fat used in delivering mRNA into human cells, as the foundation upon which to create drugs and vaccines. In the case study, company executives describe how an endless series of therapeutics can be created on the mRNA platform, analogous to how apps are created for the iPhone. This pioneering technology allows for the cultivation of multiple medicines in parallel and extensive cross-platform learning, compared to pharma companies’ typical process of conducting research, development, and clinical trials in a more linear and siloed sequence.

Technology Is Key—But So Are Your People

Beyond science, technology, and AI, Bancel (who earned his MBA from Harvard Business School) offered more insight into how Moderna intentionally and uniquely positioned itself to meet a challenge like COVID-19 head-on. He emphasized the importance of a company culture built on diverse backgrounds, opinions, and abilities, where everyone at all levels is required to think big.

Working backward: I think that’s one of the most powerful management tools when developing strategy,” Bancel asserted. “Make people dream. To dream, you have to dream years away. You can’t ask people to dream something amazing for next week. If you take the time constraints out and ask, ‘What would amazing look like?’, then people will engage. Slowly, you come back to what’s ahead in the next 12 months.”

In his executive hiring, Bancel says he explains to candidates, “If you’ve come to play a specific position, it’s not going to work. The best idea wins, regardless of who it comes from. Seniority, we don’t care. We just care about the mission. Help us be the best version of the company we can be.”

Words to Dream By: Diversity, Collaboration, and Purpose

Inquiries during the Q&A with Bancel spanned from science to business to leadership. Students asked how Moderna plans to tackle new variants of the virus, how its platform could be open sourced for more scientific discovery, and how Bancel keeps his teams motivated in the face of such daunting work.

“I think you get the best out of people when you have a strong sense of purpose,” said the CEO. “You need to set up a culture that is both demanding and collaborative, because without collaboration you cannot have great outcomes. You need a lot of different kinds of expertise to come together.”

“Vision without execution is hallucination,” Bancel continued. “Spend time on the vision—and with the team so that they own that vision. Then spend a lot of time sweating the execution: How do we align things now? How do we make it coherent? How will it play out the next year, and the year after?”

Direct insights like these are worth their weight in gold for students seeking to take their careers to the next level and solve complex problems. Not only do they discover new business applications for technology, data, and science, they also learn how visionary leaders leverage the contributions and abilities of their entire team to achieve collective greatness.

In wrapping up the LinkedIn Live event, Lakhani beamed: “HBAP has been the best pedagogical, learning, and teaching experience for me. We get to meet all of these amazing leaders from such diverse backgrounds, with a mission to help educate them so they can make a difference in the world.”

Learn more about the Harvard Business Analytics Program. You can also watch the archive of the live-streamed case study on LinkedIn.

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