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Moderna’s Vaccine Is A Startup Triumph, Too

An interview with Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, about the timeline of the company’s remarkable “from outrageous, to obvious, to lifesaving” accomplishment.



With the first doses of Moderna’s vaccine rolling out to frontline workers across the country, it’s easy to forget that the company behind this crucial tool toward ending the pandemic is itself little more than a startup.

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To deliver a vaccine for mass inoculation with 94.5 percent efficacy in clinical trials in under 11 months is obviously in itself an astonishing achievement.

But what makes Moderna‘s accomplishment all the more remarkable is that the company behind the effort got its start less than a decade ago and went public only two years ago. Its founding principle—the notion that the human body could be harnessed to make its own medicine—was considered outlandishly futuristic at the time.

In the words of co-founder and early backer Noubar Afeyan, it’s “a powerful reminder of what is possible when we journey forth, armed with propositions that may—in just a decade—go from outrageous, to obvious, to lifesaving.”

Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna.

In an effort to shed some light on Moderna’s history-making startup journey, Crunchbase News sat down with Afeyan, a venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur who’s been building startups for more than three decades. In addition to his role as co-founder and chairman of Moderna, Afeyan is also founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech venture firm that launched and funded the company in its early days.

A Beirut-born, MIT-educated biochemical engineer, Afeyan is a well-known figure in biotech startup circles. Soft-spoken demeanor aside, he’s a leading power player in the space, with a key role in the launch, funding and scaling of a long list of prominent public and private companies, including sustainable agriculture unicorn Indigo, microbiome-focused drug developer Seres Therapeutics, and, of course, Moderna.

Below are key takeaways from a conversation this week around Moderna’s early days, its startup DNA, immigrant leadership, and why the recent focus on a COVID-19 vaccine should not be called a pivot.

As a 10-year-old venture firm-founded company, Moderna is not far removed from its startup roots. And some things startups are known for is their willingness to work grueling hours, do things that have never been done before, move fast, and pursue long-term, longshot goals. I’m curious to what extent Moderna’s startup orientation was helpful in the task at hand of developing an effective vaccine in an extraordinarily short time span.

“It’s definitely a startup mentality,” Afeyan said, observing that: “Moderna’s culture has been to be unafraid of trying things that have never been tried.” The governing philosophy is to “be rigorous to a massive extent,” and to act urgently, but also “to recognize that it takes time to get things done.”

If there’s a cultural element, Afeyan said, it’s that which he calls pioneering. It’s a term he sees as different from innovating–another favored startup verb–in that pioneering involves “going to a place that’s never been inhabited before and making it habitable.” It’s also a term with a long history at Afeyan’s venture firm, which in 2016 changed its name from Flagship Ventures to Flagship Pioneering. At the time, Afeyan described the name change as part of a strategy to “purposely distance ourselves from current products and advances that represent only a short leap in innovation beyond them.”

Although Moderna is now a company with roughly 1,300 employees, the culture is still one of startup-like fearlessness around trying something new, Afeyan said. Specialization also benefited the company in tackling COVID-19, since unlike older, more established big pharma companies, Moderna remained focused since inception on a single area: messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics and vaccines.

So, the period when Moderna was founded, from 2010 to 2011, was a tough time for biotech. Investment was scarce and the economy was just beginning to recover from the financial crisis. To what extent did you face extra-normal challenges launching such an ambitious startup?

While the general investment climate was not the best a decade ago, Afeyan said its effect on Moderna was minimal as the startup was an in-house effort.

“The way we operate is that we launch our own explorations through which we discover things that will create a lot of value, come up with hypotheses, and go test them,” he recalled. “Moderna was the product of that … it was an exploration of: Could we make a drug inside a patient that could be effective?”

Founders initially envisioned applications in therapeutics, Afeyan said, but also, to a lesser extent, vaccines. After identifying a mission in the summer of 2010, Flagship launched an effort to look for ways to technologically accomplish its goal. The team was acquainted with a body of emerging research around messenger RNA focused on applying it to transform cells. “We thought: What if you could use it in animals or in humans,” Afeyan said. “That is essentially how Moderna got its start.”

By 2011, Flagship had assembled some intellectual property around its latest venture, initially named LS18. The plan was to incubate and grow the company in-house, its typical practice, using capital from its most recent venture fund. It was more at the later stages, Afeyan said, that founders envisioned bringing in outside investors.

“The company’s adversity was rather more in attracting people and large sums of capital in that what we were doing was both unheard of and unbelievable,” Afeyan said.

In the end, Moderna skipped outside venture financing in favor of an enormous strategic investment from AstraZeneca. By 2014, the pharma giant had invested $300 million at a peak valuation of $3 billion, an astonishing sum and valuation at the time for such a little-known newcomer. Other big pharma names—Merck, Alexion and Vertex—rounded out Moderna’s strategic investor pipeline. Later financing came from Moderna’s IPO in December 2018.

To what extent did the clinical trials and research that didn’t go as hoped pave the way with insights and research results to enable success with the COVID-19 vaccines?

Although Moderna, like virtually every biotech involved in clinical trials, has seen disappointing results at times, Afeyan pushed back against the come-from-behind narrative that Moderna’s tale is one of serial disappointments followed by a breakthrough success.

“It’s the conventional story line. And it’s not that we didn’t have disappointments … But a lot of this idea that nothing worked and we pivoted and we got a vaccine is provably wrong because we had vaccines in our product concepts in 2010. We worked on vaccines as early as 2013 and 2014, and the very first clinical trials Moderna ever did were for two vaccines—influenza vaccines—in pandemic strains that did not yet enter humans,” Afeyan said.

In its earliest trials, Afeyan continued, Moderna used mRNA to show it could stimulate an immune response in humans. Since then, the company has worked on 10 human vaccines in parallel with 10 non-vaccine products.

Afeyan said the conception that a particular project is either flat-out succeeding or failing isn’t consistent with how things actually work at Moderna. The company describes its process as a platform approach, with researchers commonly applying Moderna’s mRNA technology to more than 20 programs at the same time. It’s less about canceling one project and greenlighting another, and more about shifting resources to and away from particular efforts, presumably based on factors like progress and urgency.

Moderna, like a lot of transformative American companies, is founded and led by immigrants. Reading your bio, you were born in Lebanon to Armenian parents, immigrated to Canada as a teenager, and then got a Ph.D. from MIT before launching Flagship. And Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, is a native of France. I’m curious to get your thoughts on the state of immigrant startup entrepreneurship in the U.S.

There’s been quite a lot of attention paid of late to immigrants in the vaccine space, Afeyan observed. It’s reflective of the fact that there are a lot of immigrant scientists in immunology and biotech. However, Afeyan added that he’s acutely aware that many immigrants today face greater hurdles than those, such as himself, who obtained American degrees and founded companies here decades earlier.

Afeyan said he’s encouraged to see that leading research universities continue to attract students from all over the world, and many, if not most, would choose to stay. However, he’s concerned that if the country shuts off more immigration, it will harm our ability to keep building transformative companies. He also makes the case that immigrants are uniquely well-equipped for startup life.

“The immigrant experience and survivalist mindset of having to make do in a new culture; that spirit absolutely ports to entrepreneurship,” he said. Just as your brand doesn’t mean anything when you’re a startup, your family name and home country credentials don’t mean much when you’re an immigrant.

In a letter to staff, you talk about propositions that may—in just a decade—go from outrageous, to obvious, to lifesaving. I’m curious if that arc of progress appears to be accelerating. Ten years, by historical standards, sounds pretty fast, particularly for biotech.

“It’s an interesting question, because you know enough about the industry to know that’s fast,” Afeyan said. It’s especially fast, he added, if you consider that “in those 10 years, the first eight years, you have to explain to people why they have to believe you every day.”

He credits the maturation of the platform approach to biotech company-building, in part, for Moderna’s historically fast evolution from pie-in-the-sky concept company to purveyor of a pandemic-ending vaccine. Urgency also played a role, Afeyan said.

“The pandemic, if it did nothing else, it gave us the ability to prove everything from soup to nuts in a short time frame,” he said.

This has been a big year, of course, for Moderna, but Flagship also has been keeping busy, with several portfolio companies closing new rounds and a few stealth projects probably still in the very early stages. I’m curious about some of the next new things you’re finding most intriguing.

At a big-picture level, for people who work on things that are out there, Afeyan said he’s intrigued by the area they call health security.

“If you look at human health and what we call health care, it’s usually sick care,” Afeyan said. “So to go from sick care to deterring and preventing disease, in a world where securing our health is the focus instead of treating sickness, that would itself be a gigantic market.”

Broadly, health security involves taking all our knowledge and looking at the conditions before a sickness. There is a long period when bodies go through patterns of alterations after which a disease becomes manifest, and a paucity of care around monitoring and prevention.

Afeyan said he compares health security to the way we think about military spending. A lot of funding goes to weapons systems. However, a great deal also goes to monitoring, security, intelligence and other functions that allow us to deter threats so we don’t need to use those weapons. The same should hold true for health spending.

“We think society’s going to have to shift capital and incentives to getting ahead of disease,” he said.

Photos courtesy of Moderna.

Blogroll illustration: Dom Guzman

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In the words of co-founder and early backer Noubar Afeyan, it’s “a powerful reminder of what is possible when we journey forth, armed with propositions that may—in just a decade—go from outrageous, to obvious, to lifesaving.”




Square Rolls Up Afterpay As BNPL Market Stays Hot

Payments platform Square plans to buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later service, in an all-stock deal valued at around $29 billion.



Payments platform Square plans to buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later service, in an all-stock deal valued at around $29 billion.

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Melbourne-based Afterpay is publicly traded on Australia’s ASX exchange. It currently counts more than 16 million consumers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally as users of its platform, including major retailers across fashion, homewares, beauty, sporting goods and other categories. The company, backed by investors including Tencent and Coatue, has raised just under $449 million in funding, per Crunchbase data.

Afterpay competes in the increasingly crowded buy now, pay later space, which allows consumers to break up online purchases into smaller payments. Its biggest competitors include Stockholm-based Klarna, which has raised $3.7 billion from private investors to date, and Affirm, which raised $1.5 billion in venture funding before going public in January. Affirm’s share price has since plummeted to less than half of its 52-week high in February, but jumped 14 percent in morning trading on Monday after the Afterpay acquisition was announced.

Another major player in the BNPL space includes fintech giant PayPal, which in 2008 purchased Bill Me Later, an early pioneer in the space.

All told, venture investors poured $1.7 billion into buy now, pay later companies between 2016 and 2020, per Crunchbase data. A Bank of America survey late last year predicted the BNPL market was poised to “grow 10-15 times by 2025 to eventually process between $650 billion and $1 trillion in transactions.”

Venture investors like the BNPL business model because these startups essentially have two revenue streams, Kamran Ansari, a venture partner at Greycroft, which invested in e-commerce pay-over-time financing tool Credit Key, told Crunchbase News earlier this year.

The first revenue source is the actual transaction, when the merchant typically pays between 2 and 3 percent of the purchase price to the BNPL service in exchange for being able to offer that convenience to its customers. The second revenue stream for the BNPL service is interest payments from borrowers.

Square’s shares have surged 105 percent over the past year amid a boom for digital transactions such as its mobile Cash App. It also reported second-quarter earnings on Sunday, revealing that revenue had more than doubled from the same quarter the previous year, to $4.7 billion.

San Francisco-based Square said it plans to integrate Afterpay into its Cash App and seller ecosystem.

“By combining with Square, we will further accelerate our growth in the U.S. and globally, offer access to a new category of in-person merchants, and provide a broader platform of new and valuable capabilities and services to our merchants and consumers, Afterpay co-founders and co-CEOs Anthony Eisen and Nick Molnar said in a statement announcing the deal.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.

Stay up to date with recent funding rounds, acquisitions, and more with the Crunchbase Daily.

Another major player in the BNPL space includes fintech giant PayPal, which in 2008 purchased Bill Me Later, an early pioneer in the space.



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Cryptocurrency Experts Say These 4 Factors Are Driving Change In The Industry

The COVID-19



The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated acceptance of digital currencies like Bitcoin and the underlying blockchain technologies that power them. And while Bitcoin volatility continues — with the currency hitting its lowest point in months this week — investors are optimistic momentum will continue even as the world slowly starts to return to normal.

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The crypto and blockchain sector has attracted nearly $12.4 billion in venture investment into U.S.-based companies since 2017 and $19.4 billion globally, Crunchbase numbers show. In fact, data so far for 2021 shows dollars were nearly 3x from 2020 for both global and U.S. investments. But the sector also faces continued opportunities and challenges going forward, including more widespread adoption and new regulatory pressures from governments around the world.

Case in point: Earlier this month, El Salvador became the world’s first country to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. At the same time, Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission ordered its exchanges to delist meme coins, such as Dogecoin, as well as NFTs, exchange tokens and fan tokens, saying those tokens have “no clear objective or substance or underlying [value].”

Stepped-up efforts by China’s government to rein in the crypto space had the largest impact on valuations. On Friday, authorities in China’s Sichuan province, one of the country’s largest mining centers, reportedly ordered cryptocurrency miners to shut down their operations,

Cryptocurrency experts say these kinds of polarizing events put a spotlight on the space.

“Blockchain was accelerated five years in the pandemic,” according to Alon Goren, founding partner at blockchain fintech venture studio Draper Goren Holm.

Here’s a closer look at four factors that are likely to drive big changes in the cryptocurrency space in years to come.

1) Mainstream adoption

Cryptocurrency startups are working to make the process of using, buying, trading and finding digital currencies easier, driving greater consumer awareness and adoption.

Increasingly, mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies is “crazy important” to the growth of the sector, according to Goren. Still, some of that adoption has come from less serious applications of digital currencies, including “meme coins” — assets based on jokes but with no real value other than those given to them by social indicators — a phenomenon that also concerns Goren because they reinforce the notion that cryptocurrency isn’t legitimate.

“Publicly traded companies can show quarterly earnings, you can follow the CEO on Twitter and you know their opinions on things,” Goren added. “In crypto, you don’t have those kinds of things to show legitimacy.”

Meanwhile, Hsuan Lee, CEO of Portto/Blocto, said the adoption of NFTs — non-fungible tokens — is one of the biggest factors that has changed the industry in the past year. Portto is a Taiwan-based company that aims to make blockchain simple for users and developers.

Although NFTs have been around since 2017, they were initially not appealing for typical use, but that all changed when they became approachable by retail investors, including when sports organizations got involved in selling digital clips and cards, he said.

“The National Basketball Association doesn’t market itself as a blockchain, but offering collectibles on it appeals to fans,” Lee said in an interview. “With those kinds of applications, even introducing a music NFT would potentially attract existing music fans. With that kind of people joining the party, it will make crypto more mainstream.”

Muneeb Jan, a cryptocurrency and fintech expert operating out of Hong Kong, said the investor base for cryptocurrency is still largely retail investors, while major financial institutions are in the discovery phase.

Still, new companies are announcing on a daily basis that they will accept bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and banks are facing crypto investor demand to get more involved in the space, Jan said.

“Crypto funds are increasingly viewed as an asset class,” he said in an interview. “There is not much of a use case currently, but they want to jump onto the bandwagon. If more large institutional investors come in, there will be price stability, and it will improve the legitimacy.”

2) Price volatility

Jan believes two of the biggest headwinds slowing more mainstream cryptocurrency adoption are price volatility and the fact that bitcoin as a mode of payment is not yet completely viable due the current inability to quickly process transactions.

Bitcoin has been particularly volatile in recent days. After surging above $40,000 about a week ago, the currency fell below $30,000 this week, recovering to around $32,400 as of Tuesday afternoon. Over the past year, the price grew to a peak of more than $60,000 before falling back to half that at the end of May.

Just processing transactions is not a sustainable use long-term due to the expensive transaction fees associated with it, even though people want bitcoin to be able to do that, he added.

“Other cryptocurrencies are not volatile because the community investing in them have come to a consensus on the price,” Jan said.

Lee said price volatility will be aided by regulations, especially as cryptocurrency is adopted more broadly. Price volatility will only be fixed with time, he said.

“This is a very young market and it has attracted attention, which makes prices volatile,” he added. “It can be dangerous to get into a space without established regulations. Being at an early stage, there is a lot of imagination that can be had for these cryptocurrencies. At the same time, when bad news comes out, it can easily dump harder on crypto than other companies.”

3) Regulatory pressure

Regulations proposed for cryptocurrency have gained steam since the beginning of 2021.

Among them: The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced in May that it will require any transfer worth $10,000 or more to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as part of an effort to curb tax evasion.

“I’m happy to see regulations come into place because it will be good for the industry overall,” Lee said. “It will minimize possible scams or malicious use cases and make it better for everyone to get on board.”

The government is also examining possible regulations of cryptocurrency exchanges with a focus on protecting investors and preventing market manipulation, as well as financial account reporting as it relates to cryptoasset exchange accounts and payment service accounts that accept cryptocurrencies.

Goren called a focus on Bitcoin, Etherium and the public markets “a double-edged sword.” Any real value is eroded when inflation occurs, but Bitcoin is a decentralized currency, so its value holds up well against inflation.

And the more institutions that participate, the more legitimacy it creates so regulators are less likely to fight it, he said.

“Most lawmakers know crypto is not used by criminals, but the people who put them in office are large financial institutions that are cheering when they say that happens,” Goren said.

While he understands why there have to be IRS reporting requirements for tax purposes, he disagrees when government regulations don’t consider Bitcoin a currency, but then treats it like cash.

By instead treating cryptocurrency as a capital asset, the IRS is taxing capital gains, which could also have implications on the venture capital world, he added.

Goren said other countries have a bit more clarity, but there is still misunderstanding in the U.S. when it comes to how cryptocurrencies should be reported financially, and it won’t change until there is clear categorization of cryptocurrencies.

4) Beyond Bitcoin

Rocketfuel Blockchain founder Peter Jensen said it will take time for the public to understand and be comfortable with cryptocurrency, much as people had to acclimate to the idea of online banking and ATM cards before that.

Jensen’s company, based in San Francisco, processes crypto payments. He believes people are distracted by the price volatility of Bitcoin, although it is just one out of some 200 cryptocurrencies.

“We need to move people’s minds away from Bitcoin because who knows if cryptocurrency will survive,” Jensen said in an interview. “There are many cryptocurrencies pegged to the dollar, which means they have zero volatility. If you take those and use them for payment, then you get the benefits of that.”

Global developments — such as El Salvador adopting cryptocurrency and both Sweden and Dubai issuing their own digital currencies — bring promise for the future of the industry, and Jensen predicts the U.S. will eventually issue a digital version of the dollar.

He sees a world where when you get a job, you will have the choice of receiving your paycheck in dollars or cryptocurrency, and there will be no volatility because those funds will be guaranteed by the U.S. government.

“We feel that the U.S. has an opportunity to be ahead, even though China is adopting cryptocurrency faster, as well as those with less-efficient banking systems,” Jensen added. “If we don’t stay in front, we are going to be last.”

Crunchbase Pro queries listed for this article

The query used for this article was “Global Cryptocurrency Companies,” in which “Bitcoin,” “cryptocurrency” and “virtual currency” were the organizational industry search terms. The data was then separated out by changing the headquarters location to “United States.”

All Crunchbase Pro Queries are dynamic with results updating over time. They can be adapted with any company or investor name for analysis.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

Stay up to date with recent funding rounds, acquisitions, and more with the Crunchbase Daily.

Stepped-up efforts by China’s government to rein in the crypto space had the largest impact on valuations. On Friday, authorities in China’s Sichuan province, one of the country’s largest mining centers, reportedly ordered cryptocurrency miners to shut down their operations,



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Zenefits Payroll Glitch Results In Delayed Paychecks For Small-Business Employees

Employees of several small businesses weren’t paid Friday after payroll and benefits platform Zenefits closed for the Juneteenth holiday and experienced a glitch, two people affected told Crunchbase News.



Employees of several small businesses were paid late Friday after payroll and benefits platform Zenefits closed for the Juneteenth holiday and experienced a glitch, two people affected told Crunchbase News.

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Zenefits provides tools for businesses to handle HR, onboarding, benefits and payroll. It’s used by many small and medium-sized businesses. The San Francisco-based company has raised at least $584 million in known venture funding, per Crunchbase data, and was most recently valued at $4.5 billion by private investors when it raised funding in 2015.

On Friday, several people took to the comments section of a Facebook post Zenefits made in honor of Juneteenth, which this week became a federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the U.S., to complain that their employees hadn’t been paid, despite their respective companies processing payroll.

The post was soon deleted.

John Bazyk, CEO of Connecticut-based security system company Command Corp., told Crunchbase News that he realized Friday morning that his company’s employees hadn’t been paid after one of them contacted him.

Command usually sees a tax withdrawal and employees’ net pay come out of its bank account on Wednesday, but this week only the tax withdrawal was taken on Wednesday, Bazyk said.

The payroll amount was taken out this morning, but had yet to be disbursed to employees as of 4 p.m. Eastern, he said.

Bazyk said he spent four hours Friday trying to deal with the issue, and hadn’t received any communication from Zenefits such as an email alerting him of the issue.

Some employees have bills that automatically debit from their bank accounts, he said, and not being paid could put them in a bind.

“The employees are upset at me, they think I didn’t run payroll,” Bazyk said. “Some of these are new employees. They’re joining a new company and it’s like, ‘Wait I’m not getting paid?’ ”

Usually preceding a holiday, Zenefits will remind customers to run payroll early, Bazyk said, but that wasn’t the case this week. He noted that he understands it’s a unique situation — with President Biden on Thursday signing legislation that made Friday a new federal holiday in celebration of Juneteenth — but the situation and lack of communication from Zenefits were frustrating.

“Even if they make it right, we’re probably going to leave them because it’s an unacceptable mistake,” Bazyk said.

It’s not clear how many of Zenefits’ customers or their employees were impacted by the error.

Nancy, a controller and HR administrator at a company in the Washington, D.C., area, said she was notified by two employees Friday that they hadn’t been paid. Around 2:15 p.m. Eastern, she saw a notification in the Zenefits portal acknowledging the issue. Nancy did not want to share her full name because she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her employer.

“Businesses can make mistakes,” she said. “Whatever caused the debit to not go out is not good. But then to not be there to answer what happened … that’s bad.”

A Zenefits spokeswoman said in an email to Crunchbase News that the issue causing the payroll delay was resolved, and that employees would receive payment by 5 p.m. Pacific time.

“Today, Zenefits experienced an issue that resulted in a delay for some employees’ direct deposits,” the statement read. “This has been resolved and we can confirm that employees who did not receive their direct deposit this morning will receive it today by 5 PM PT. All employees will be paid and the funds have already been processed. We are currently waiting on the banks to send them out this afternoon.”

Another Zenefits spokeswoman said in an email at 2:40 p.m. Pacific time that the issue was resolved and affected employees had been paid.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

Editor’s Note: This story was updated after it was first published to reflect that payment for affected employees had gone through late Friday afternoon, after Crunchbase News first spoke with sources.

Stay up to date with recent funding rounds, acquisitions, and more with the Crunchbase Daily.

On Friday, several people took to the comments section of a Facebook post Zenefits made in honor of Juneteenth, which this week became a federal holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the U.S., to complain that their employees hadn’t been paid, despite their respective companies processing payroll.



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