Moderna, the Cambridge drug maker few outside the world of biotechnology had heard of before it developed a COVID-19 vaccine, is now the third-biggest biopharma employer based in Massachusetts, behind Biogen and Vertex, according to a report by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
Overall, Moderna is the seventh-largest employer in the state’s booming biopharma hub, trailing multinational giants with corporate headquarters outside Massachusetts such as Takeda, Sanofi, Novartis, and Pfizer, according to the 2021 “industry snapshot” released Wednesday by the trade group.
Moderna, which expanded rapidly as the federal government funneled billions of dollars to it and rival vaccine makers through Operation Warp Speed, now has 1,738 employees. That’s more than double its total in last year’s report, when it was the 15th-biggest biopharma employer. And MassBio’s latest head count appears to be an undercount; Moderna said in an Aug. 5 earnings call that it has roughly 1,800 employees.
Perhaps even more remarkable, though unmentioned in the 31-page report, is Moderna’s staggering market value of almost $160 billion. That’s the most of any homegrown biopharma company in Massachusetts and roughly three times those of Biogen and Vertex, each of which is valued at about $52 billion on the stock market. Moderna’s share price was $19.56 on Dec. 31, 2019, before the pandemic was declared, and has soared 1,919 percent since then, closing Tuesday at $394.94.
Unlike Biogen and Vertex — which are established firms with blockbuster drugs for neurological conditions and cystic fibrosis, respectively ― 11-year-old Moderna had not gotten a product to market until federal regulators cleared its two-shot vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 18. The Food and Drug Administration had authorized the first coronavirus vaccine, from Pfizer-BioNTech, a week earlier.
“It’s very uncommon to see a company grow this quickly,” said Mani Foroohar, an analyst in Boston with SVB Leerink, who added that timing was among several factors that contributed to Moderna’s success.
The messenger RNA technology that Moderna was founded on and used in its COVID-19 vaccine was ideally suited for a shot that would instruct cells to create the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus and stimulate an immune response. Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, used the same approach in their vaccine, which, like Moderna’s, requires two shots.
“For the mRNA vaccines, this was their moment, and it was a moment of the right place, the right time, and the right technology,” Foroohar said. It remains to be seen whether Moderna can duplicate its success, he said, as it tries to use mRNA technology in vaccines and drugs that the firm is developing for other illnesses, including rare diseases and cancer.
But another analyst, Michael J. Yee of Jefferies LLC, sounded more optimistic.
“Moderna has proven the early power of its mRNA technology and developed a best-in-class vaccine in less than a year, manufactured and treated hundreds of millions of people on time and [without] any major issues, and beat pharma at its own game,” he said.
He said the company’s approach “might prove even more disruptive” in vaccines to prevent influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (a common infection in children) as well as in drugs to treat multiple diseases.
Moderna owes much of its success to the federal government. As of April 29, it had received about $6 billion from taxpayers to help it develop, test, and manufacture its vaccine ― as well as to secure 300 million doses.
The firm’s skyrocketing share price has made billionaires of several leaders of and key investors in Moderna, including Noubar Afeyan, its chairman and a cofounder; Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and biomedical engineering professor at MIT who was another cofounder; chief executive Stephane Bancel; and Timothy Springer, a Harvard Medical School immunologist and founding investor.
Moderna is the most obvious success story contained in MassBio’s report, but 2020 was extraordinary for the biotechnology sector. Biopharma companies based in the state raised a record-breaking $5.8 billion in venture capital investment. Firms are on pace to shatter that record this year, having raised $4.3 billion in the first quarter.
The appetite among investors for companies making their debuts on public markets remains strong, with 10 initial public offerings from Massachusetts-based companies taking place in the first half of 2021 and raising a total of $2.1 billion, MassBio said. That’s close to the pace of 21 IPOs in 2020.
“The industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has generated enormous and sustained investment,” said Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, MassBio’s president and chief operating officer.
Despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, biopharma employment in Massachusetts grew at a rate of 5.5 percent in 2020, reaching nearly 85,000 jobs. That total is a 92 percent increase over the last 15 years and helps explain why Massachusetts is among the leading biotech hubs in the world.
MassBio estimates that the sector will add 20 million square feet of laboratory and manufacturing space by 2024 that will necessitate 40,000 new employees.
And with demand for workers often outstripping supply, those employees will almost certainly be very well paid. The average annual wage is $235,000 for jobs in research and development and $160,000 for jobs in biomanufacturing, according to the MassBio report. MassBio did not provide median wages.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.