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Pfizer CEO urges Babson graduates to aim high

Albert Bourla says the drug maker “needed to think far out of the box and design completely new ways of working” to develop and manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla addressed Babson College graduates on Saturday.JOHN THYS/Associated Press

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla urged Babson College graduates on Saturday to set ambitious goals, invoking a famous philosopher from his native Greece and citing his own firm’s development of the first coronavirus vaccine cleared in the United States.

“Perhaps the greatest philosopher of all time ― and as a proud Greek, of course, I would say that he’s Aristotle ― once said, ‘Our problem is not that we aim too high and miss. Our problem is that we aim too low and hit,’’' Bourla told recipients of graduate degrees at the virtual commencement ceremony.

While that might seem a daunting challenge, Bourla said, it’s actually liberating. As evidence, he cited the messenger RNA vaccine that the New York pharmaceutical giant got authorized for emergency use in record time, on Dec. 11, the first of three coronavirus vaccines cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.


“If we had asked our scientists to find ways to develop the vaccine in eight years instead of the 10 that it usually takes, they would have found it very difficult and likely would have tried to achieve it by improving the existing process,” said Bourla, who also serves as Pfizer’s chairman. “But we asked them to do it in eight months, not eight years.

“And if we had asked our engineers to manufacture 250 million doses within a year, they would try to do it by improving the way we already work. But we asked them to make two and a half billion doses. Both groups recognized immediately that simply making improvements wouldn’t bring them even close to achieving these goals.”

Pfizer employees “needed to think far out of the box and design completely new ways of working, and that’s exactly what they did,” said Bourla, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree at the ceremony.


As of Friday, more than 143 million doses of the mRNA vaccine that Pfizer developed with its German partner, BioNTech, had been administered in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compared with more than 115 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine and more than 9 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

Pfizer and Babson have collaborated on customized management development programs, including a corporate certificate in advanced management and a corporate MBA degree for Pfizer employees.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.