Changing the face of medicine with Moderna
Changing the face of medicine with Moderna
Imagine being on the inside of Moderna in 2020? Lavina Talukdar, Senior Vice President of Investor Relations at Moderna, talks the race to the COVID-19 vaccine, how she landed her dream role with zero prior investor-relations experience and what the future holds for the biotech firm that is changing the face of medicine.
Heather: I met Lavina Talukdar in November 2020, the day a little-known biotech company called Moderna announced 94% efficacy of their vaccine against COVID-19. Lavina had joined Moderna as Senior Vice President of Investor Relations 11 months before COVID was declared a pandemic—but she was immediately thrust on the world stage as part of an amazing leadership team that achieved the unthinkable in record time. Five hundred million vaccinations and millions of saved lives later, it has certainly been a wild ride—but one that Lavina told me is par for the course for a life lived outside of the box. I have been so excited for this conversation ever since she graciously agreed to join me. So, without further ado: Welcome, Lavina.
Lavina: Thank you, Heather. I’m so thrilled to be here.
Heather: So, you joined Moderna at an interesting time—which I think might be the understatement of the century. It’s 7:00 AM, you were living in Abu Dhabi and you applied for a position in investor relations. You had little-to-no IR direct experience, and Moderna had all of zero commercial products in the market. So, tell me, what’s going through your mind.
Lavina: So…it’s 7:00 AM in Abu Dhabi, and I am getting my news feed on LinkedIn—because it’s too early here in the States to even have the first edition of any of the newspapers out. And I’m just catching up on everything that’s going on in biopharma, which is what my specialty was as an investor.
In Abu Dhabi, I worked for the Sovereign Wealth Fund and did investing mostly in the healthcare sector, with a specialty in the biopharma space. And on LinkedIn, I see this posting come up for the Head of Investor Relations for Moderna and thought, “Hm, I could do that.” And so, with technology being what it is—it’s just so awesome—with a click of a button I could apply for the position. And it said, you know, increase your chances of getting a call back by showing that you are connected with Stéphane Bancel, the CEO. And so I did that, as well. Then, after giving it a thought for a few minutes, I sent off an email to Stéphane and said, “Hey I just applied to this position for the Head of Investor Relations at Moderna and think I can do this, but I want you to actually think this through and only consider me if you think I’m the right fit.” We got on the phone and, within a month, he was happy to have me join the company.
So I was thrilled to be here. I knew that there were going to be some challenges ahead, because—as you said, Heather—I had zero IR experience. But coming from the investor side of things, I often liaised with investor relations representatives and knew, or thought I knew, who the effective ones were and who weren’t the effective ones. I also had a thought process in terms of what I think I could bring to the table, as well. And, more importantly, I really thought the IR representative role was a very important role—particularly for a company like Moderna, who at the time, as you mentioned, had no products on the market, a phenomenal team and great technology that they were developing. And I wanted to tell the story and let people hear the story from my point of view, which is why I thought I’d be well-suited for it.
Heather: Well, clearly you are. And I love the idea of coming into a role and not only bringing your own special sauce to it but actually thinking this can be done in a really effective and dynamic way. What had you learned in liaising with investor relations professionals that you wanted to bring to the table? And conversely, what were the things that you wanted to avoid, based on what you saw wasn’t as effective?
Lavina: Excellent question. So, there were these effective IR representatives that knew what to talk to you about, who often came back to you in a timely basis. And if they couldn’t answer a question, they’d get you someone internally that could answer the question. The one thing that I thought was often lacking was the perspective from the investor side of the equation, where it wasn’t really clear to me that everyone on the IR side understood what it was that an investor was trying to get to from a question. Having that perspective, I thought, would really help any company and any IR individual really bring to light how to tell the story of any company or the narrative. I thought that was something I could do, just given where I was coming from.
And I thought I had, in what I was bringing to the table, this perspective of both the investor but also being able to, in many ways, dumb down very high science so that it was completely understandable to a lay person. That skillset also, I think, is important for an investor relations person; because when you’re speaking to your audience, you’re going to have people from all walks of the investing world…those with PhDs, those with very minimal science education. Being able to communicate that at the level that is easily and readily understandable, I think, is absolutely an important attribute for an IR representative—particularly for a firm like Moderna. It was Warren Buffet who said he doesn’t invest in anything he doesn’t understand. And the role of an IR individual is to help as many people in the audience, the investor base, understand the company as intimately as anyone internally would.
Heather: Yeah, it’s like you’ve been in their shoes, so you’re really speaking to them not just with the lens of corporate speak and this is the story but spinning it in a way that’s really relevant. What’s something that people get wrong about Moderna?
Lavina: So now, just given the success of our COVID-19 vaccine, it was the ultimate proof point of the technology—particularly in the vaccine space. Moderna is doing a lot more outside of vaccines, as well. But in the early days, there was really a question of whether or not this technology was going to be what Moderna thought it was going to be—which was a new approach, a new class of medicines, a different way of designing, developing, and delivering medicines to patients. And I was convinced from being an investor in the company and doing the due diligence that it was to change the world of medicine. So, there was this challenge of helping people see what I saw by connecting the dots, and that was a skill that I was honing ever since I started in this business back in the late ’90s. Again, I thought I had, in what I was bringing to the table, this perspective of the investor but also being able to, in many ways, dumb down very high science so that it was completely understandable by a lay person.
Heather: Let’s dig into it and talk about the technology, which is obviously at the core of this new face of what’s possible in medicine. Now, messenger mRNA is something that rolls off of our tongues—but when you joined, it was not something that rolled off the tongue. Walk me through it; and walk me through its utility outside of what we know, which is a vaccine for COVID-19.
Lavina: We’re going to have to dive into a little bit of a biology lesson; it’s like eighth grade biology, actually. Hopefully, the audience can follow along. So, mRNA and the relationship around mRNA is a very ancient but important one for all living things. Right in between DNA and proteins is this very important molecule known as mRNA. And mRNA is a transient molecule—an instruction set of certain segments of your DNA, where all of this information that tells us who you are and keeps you healthy is housed. And mRNA uses little parts of your DNA to encode for proteins, which can be the hair strands that are blonde or i the insulin molecule or protein that keeps you healthy. When you have lunch or any meal, your body will release insulin to make sure that the sugar levels in your bloodstream stay at a healthy level and don’t damage any of your organs. So, if you had a faulty instruction set in your DNA, that didn’t allow you to make insulin, for instance. You would likely have diabetes and no longer be healthy. And so, this critical molecule in mRNA is that instruction set that instructs your body to make the important proteins that it requires to remain healthy.
Heather: Wow. I do love the way that you kind of unpack it. I’ve read a lot about it and kind of understand it, but I have a different perspective now—which shows how good you are at your job. The team at Moderna talks about breakthrough innovation—not just as a stroke of luck but as a repeatable process, looking at novel spaces and encouraging unreasonable ideas. What have you learned about the innovation process, and how has it been evolving since you’ve joined?
Lavina: So, we talked a lot about this ancient molecule mRNA. It turns out that the molecule itself is very fragile. You so much as look at it, and it could disintegrate. I mean, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but it’s very hard to work with. And, in fact, during my due-diligence process in looking into this company, that would come up often with outside experts whom I would speak to on the mNRA molecule and who’d say this is never going to work. There was always this skepticism out there. So, in order to overcome skepticism, you almost have to innovate around what everybody already accepted as truth. That is what the scientists at Moderna do phenomenally. They refuse to accept that truths that are out there should remain truths. And, in fact, why wouldn’t it be possible to make mRNA a viable molecule? So, this endeavor is really what kind of launched the company itself. It was that sense of asking, first: What if you could turn mRNA into a viable option for medicine? And two: How would you do it? And so, they embarked on answering those questions and engineered and used, really, the convergence of technologies. Lots of things happening in the life-science space that helped them understand how to overcome some of those challenges of mRNA being a very unstable molecule. And then, as they figured that out, they also patented all of this stuff but also innovated around the delivery of the mRNA molecule, as well. And as the convergence of these different parts of the technology came together, it was becoming readily apparent that you can use mRNA as a vaccine or as a medicine. The company then started working toward clinical trials to prove out that they had “cracked the code.”
Heather: Tell me about March 2020. The company was on a trajectory and then had to really pivot and be laser-focused on kind of achieving the impossible in record time. I imagine people were working around the clock, that stakes were high. Tell me about what you took away from going through that period of time.
Lavina: People were absolutely working around the clock, and I was amazed at this sense of responsibility that everyone felt internally when they thought that we potentially had a solution to this emerging problem. And at the time, in January 2020, I would guess that most folks outside of the eastern part of the globe still thought, “Oh, it’s not going to come here. It’s not going to happen here in January 2020.” And yet, the folks inside Moderna thought, “Well, if it does, we’re going to be ready it.”
So, there was this massive onslaught of work that needed to be done for us to be ready for something like an epidemic or the pandemic that it eventually turned into…just in case. And so, we internally started all of that work here. The good news was that we had already developed many other vaccines prior to the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, a little-known fact is that it was really our 10th vaccine that we were about to then take into the clinic. We used a lot of that know-how and expertise and understanding of our technology to help us move as fast as we could with the COVID-19 vaccine. And it took us two days, I believe. And that two days was only because we wanted to make sure that every piece was in the right place before actually moving into the clinic with it. It could have taken maybe even a half-day to get the design of the vaccine together; but, nonetheless, two days is good enough. And once we did, we started manufacturing the first lot that would be going into the clinical trials for phase one; and within about 42 days, the vaccine was ready to start clinical trials. We were partnered with the National Institutes of Health to help with that trial.
Heather: And I imagine, in the midst of all of this, you’re ramping up and you’re hiring. How many people were at the company when you joined? How many people are there today? And how can you maintain that culture that was really founded on this idea, that deep responsibility, as you grow?
Lavina: We more than doubled, for sure, from January 2020 to now. I want to fathom a guess and say, we were probably at the 500 employees mark in January 2020 and are close to, if not above (we’re moving so fast) 2,000 at this point in time. So definitely, fast paced in growth. And you bring up a really great point, which is how do you keep that culture—and that secret sauce of how everybody here interacts—still part of the company’s DNA—and it’s difficult. Yet, somehow the Human Resources Department here has been phenomenal at identifying what it is that makes each individual at Moderna such a good fit for the cultural values that we have here. And they’ve, you know, kind of stuck very hard and fast to looking for those attributes—you know, being bold, being curious, being relentless and collaborative…making sure that we’re all working and rowing in the same direction. Those tenets are what everybody was looking for in the new individuals that we were interviewing to bring on board. So far, I think we’ve done a phenomenal job in keeping that culture alive. And when you get that spark from someone and you know that this is something that’s beyond them, it’s beyond really just what Moderna can offer them but what they can offer Moderna and, by proxy, what we can offer the world.
Heather: And I think that that idea of purpose and finding meaning, making a difference, being part of something greater than ourselves, I do think is something many individuals would say they want to sign up for. But it’s hard, right? And it takes a lot of grit. And as you said, just relentlessness. What’s been the hardest part of your job?
Lavina: Prior to the pandemic, it felt as if my role was really to kind of evangelize the story. And I was knocking on every investor’s door, trying to get them to understand the technology, the company, the management team and their role on how to execute and do everything that they needed to do to ultimately prove out this technology and, hopefully, have the impact. And that was a lot of traveling, a lot of phone calls, a lot of putting together the dots of what would make a strong thesis in the future of Moderna from the investor standpoint. And then came the pandemic. And we were, as you earlier said, thrust onto the world stage. Everyone was scrambling to understand what is it that Moderna could bring as a solution to the problem. On vaccines and vaccinology, which in the investor space prior to COVID-19 was kind of like a sleepy area where you had the incumbents that were out there. The technology, the traditional technologies, were already pretty established. Even though the folks internally at Moderna were starting to see through the nine other vaccines we had taken through the clinic and the potential impact that mRNA technology could have in the vaccine space, we didn’t have a product on the market. So that ultimate proof wasn’t there. And there was still a lot of skepticism around whether or not mRNA would be a strong vaccine. And yet, now we have this opportunity to prove that out. So the interest from the investor side perked up.
So then, that was probably 80 to 90% of my day—explaining how this technology could eventually change vaccinology. We made sure that we educated the investor base and, really, all of the general public; because there’s such interest now in immunology, vaccinology, the old technologies, the new technologies and how we all were going to get out of this situation, this emergency situation that we found ourselves in.
Heather: Tell me what it was like when you received those first results about the efficacy. Were you guys just jumping up and down and hugging each other? In a way, there was no moment for celebration. You had to go, go, go. But tell me what it was like and where you were when you heard.
Lavina: Yeah, I wish we could give each other high fives and hugs but, unfortunately, the pandemic was raging. I remember, it was Saturday when I got the call from Stéphane. He said [the vaccine] was 94% efficacy. And I was speechless. I was, like, “Wow, that’s fantastic, right?” I mean, it took me a few seconds to muster up the words. So many thoughts were going through my head…like, thank God! But I remember taking the call, knowing that we were now going to be drafting the communications on the results, and just feeling a sense of relief, as well, because—as I’m sure you know—we were the second one out with our results. And coming in 94%, which was a phenomenal result, and having this sense of, “I think we’re going to have a handle on the pandemic now.” was just overwhelming.
Heather: So incredible. Tell me about what you’ve learned, observing Stéphane and his role, and any lessons you’ve taken away from how he’s been a leader in this time.
Lavina: So many lessons. He embodies relentlessness, right? He’s always thinking about what’s next. Often, he comes in with this: “How does everything from here grow 10X.” And it’s this passion for wanting to make sure that the technology that the team here has developed is utilized and optimized to the utmost. As much impact as it can have for patients, for individuals, all of us are healthy individuals when we get our vaccines. How can he then take it to the next level? He’s been in the biopharma space for a very long time. I think he started his career at Eli Lilly in the manufacturing side of things. He subsequently led a bio diagnostics firm in France as the CEO there. So, he was always around the space of health, and he’s drawn on his experiences of what’s worked in the past and also reinvented the way he thinks about things—because you have to when you’re dealing with a brand-new technology. So that melding of his experience, as well as learning new things and reinventing how he thinks about things, is something that I’ve loved to see happen right before my eyes.
Heather: What do you think he’s learned from you as the leader?
Lavina: I think what he’s learned from me might just go back to who I am as a person—which is, I don’t see any role as being limiting whatsoever. Yes, we, as society, like to say: Well, an IR individual or an investor is very good at 1, 2, 3 things, so maybe that’s not the person to ask a question on thing number 4, something completely different or out of their sphere. Yet, I feel that I’ve convinced him, through our interactions, that he could come to me and talk to me about thing number 4 even though I may not be an expert in it. That curiosity in me is something that I think he takes away as being more comfortable in terms of bringing up things and just wanting to hear my opinion on stuff. That, to me, is something he probably has learned from me—that there isn’t a box that everybody sort of belongs in. But if you like the way someone thinks and their thought processes, then you could take them out of their box and empower them to actually think through things with you. So, I think he’s learned a little bit of that from me just because of our interactions and my almost quietly demanding that I could potentially solve some of the problems or questions that we’re dealing with that have nothing to do with IR, for instance; but ultimately, because of the way we think and strategize on other things, there’s that skill set that could also help with a different question.
Heather: I love that idea of quietly demanding. It reminds me of something we talked about earlier, and you said, “You know, I’m very anti-pedigree.” Talk to me about that.
Lavina: I’m so glad you brought that up. I’m anti-pedigree, because pedigree to me puts everybody in a box. And the way we know pedigree is, as an example, your upbringing or the schools you had gone to. Oftentimes, you’ll find society putting folks into boxes based on where they are and who they’re interacting with. And pedigree is that set or that environment that you find yourself in, that process of having everyone think similarly. If they have a similar pedigree, even if you are of a completely different ethnic background or religious background, the fact that you’re in this environment, probably has you thinking more similarly to your counterparts than anything else. So why would we want to enforce that in any kind of thought process? Diversity of thought, to me, actually comes from diversity of backgrounds, of environment, of upbringing. And so pedigree doesn’t fit into any of that, in my opinion. A person from school XYZ who is of Asian descent, or a person from XYZ school that’s of Native American descent, or a person from the same XYZ school of Hispanic descent, despite their differences, may actually have thoughts that are not as diverse as it can be if we had decided to take each of those individuals and put them in a room and, you know, speak to each other if they all came from different pedigrees or schools. As a result, I’m very anti-pedigree, because it doesn’t allow for diversity of thought—in my opinion.
Heather: Amen. I love that. And I think it’s an angle on this topic of diversity and inclusion that we’re all talking about that’s a really important one. If we keep looking in the same places, hiring the same kinds of people, we’re going to just get the same results. And, obviously, it’s a time when there’s just so many problems to be solved. We need diversity of thought. What are you most excited about in terms of what you’re working on now and as you look ahead for Moderna?
Lavina: I’m going to highlight the personalized cancer vaccine program for you guys. There, we are literally personalizing medicine to where we take an individual sequence of the cancer cells themselves to try and find the difference between the cancer cell or the tumor and the individual’s healthy cells. And those differences, we believe, could help wake up the immune system to then attack the tumor. And we do this in combination with a very successful drug on the market known as Keytruda. That particular Merck product takes the brakes off the immune system. So that synergistic effect of having Moderna’s personalized cancer vaccine (PCV) unmasking the tumor and Keytruda allowing for the immune system to rev up and attack the tumor, we think, could potentially lead to many more patients living cancer-free once the combination is approved. We’re in clinical trials right now—waiting to see if, in fact, that synergy exists. And we announced that we have fully enrolled a randomized, head-to-head, phase-two trial, where we’re looking at the combination versus Keytruda alone. There, we want to show that there is a higher percentage of people living cancer-free because of the combination versus Keytruda by itself. So those results will likely be available toward the end of 2022. It’s really the impact that it can potentially have on cancer patients that is invigorating. So I can’t wait for those results to come out.
The thing that I’m most excited about. we touched a little on. That is the sense of reproducibility—let’s take vaccines, for instance. Now that we’ve proven the utility of mRNA as an approach in vaccines with our COVID-19 vaccine, the question then becomes, “Are there other vaccines that will have similar potential and impact?” And we think, yes. Once you prove that in a vaccine—for instance, there’s high utility in using our platform for making vaccines that are successful—then it should hold that each subsequent vaccine using the same technologies will be just as high in terms of probability of success. How many viruses are there that we all live with and that we wish we didn’t have to live with or that we had defenses for? What if mRNA was the approach—the vaccine approach to stop RSV, to stop CMV infection, to help millions of people avoid hospitalizations deaths and birth defects. That would be something remarkable.
Another way to kind of think about it…every year, I either get the flu or, if it’s not the flu, some cold during the winter season. And it’s usually related to other Corona viruses that have been endemic within the human population for many, many years. Yet, I accept that. I’m like, “Okay, it’s October. I’m probably going to be sick 10, 15 days out of the whole three months of the winter season.” And I just accept it. But what if there were a solution where, every year, I get a vaccine that combines different viruses—antigens against those viruses—in that vaccine that would keep me healthy for the whole season. And I wouldn’t have a day where I don’t feel 100 percent. That was unthinkable but may no longer be the case if Moderna’s technology is proven to be safe and effective in a combination vaccine that protects you from all of those ailments during the winter season.
Heather: Well, I mean, healthy and free. I don’t know if there’s anything better than that in terms of what you’re working toward. So, the podcast is Icons in the Making, and it’s really about the changing face of what an icon is and what an icon can do. So, I have to ask: Who is an icon to you?
Lavina: I’ve given this question some thought in terms of who is an icon to me. There are so many people that I can kind of speak to. But the one person in all of history that stands out to me—that does that the best—is Leonardo DaVinci. And even though I could say, “Yeah, it’s the Mona Lisa, and that’s why,” it really isn’t just the Mona Lisa, or the Vitruvius man, or any of his anatomical drawings or even his engineering ability. It’s the fact that he never thought that he was limited in doing anything that he set himself up to do. He could be a painter, like no other painter in history. He could be a mathematician, like no other mathematician. There wasn’t anything that he felt was too big of a mental task for him, and he would just go out and do it. I love that in any individual. In fact, anything that I could kind of look at and say, “Yeah, I could do that,” is what I think is iconic behavior. And he embodies “icon” for me.
Heather: I love that. I want to thank you so much. I know that you’ve got a full day, a full week, a full month, a full year of really important work to do—but you are incredible. The work you’re doing is incredible. Thank you for spending some time with us.
Lavina: Thank you, Heather.
Given the success of our COVID-19 vaccine, it was the ultimate proof point of the technology, particularly in the vaccine space.