The following is an excerpt of a speech that Noubar Afeyan, founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, delivered to the MassBio “State of Possible” conference on May 6.
At Flagship Pioneering, we start our scientific explorations by asking “What If?” to imagine a future outcome or capability, unconstrained by what seems possible today. In 2010 we asked: What if patients could make drugs inside their own bodies? The answer led us to create LS18 — our 18th life science company — better known as Moderna.
Since then, the safety and efficacy of mRNA vaccines, and the speed at which they were developed and deployed, has been hailed as miraculous. This characterization is fitting, since the company and its innovation emerged from what I think of as the “Second Massachusetts Miracle” — the rise and eventual global preeminence of this area’s remarkable biotech sector and its collective efforts fighting COVID.
Many will remember the first “Massachusetts Miracle,” when, after a 60-year chapter of atrophy and decline, the region roared back in the 1980s, in large part due to Boston and Cambridge’s dominance in the most important products of the decades that followed: big brains and big ideas.
Labs at Harvard and MIT spun out technology companies that dotted Route 128, fueling the economic comeback, and by the late 80s it looked like Massachusetts was poised to become the technology and innovation capital of the world. But . . . it didn’t. Northern California and Silicon Valley were quicker to adopt a startup culture, and sprinted ahead through the next 30 years.
More recently, however, innovation momentum has shifted back our way. The new products and platforms now driving progress center on the personal computer known as the human body. The area in and around Kendall Square has become the epicenter of the biotech boom, and the same strengths that fueled the first Massachusetts Miracle — top-notch academic institutions, smart people and their bold ideas, and ready funding to scale the companies that result — are fueling company creation and job growth once again.
There are compelling reasons for biotech entrepreneurs to double down on this region: close proximity to the world’s leading universities, powerhouse research institutions, readily available risk capital, a rich life-sciences network, and entrepreneurial talent. The same iconoclastic thinking that challenges technological orthodoxy also stimulates social innovation, propelled by cultural diversity and manifested by leadership here in Massachusetts on issues from universal health care coverage to fundamental human rights.
It is no wonder that when the world was brought to its knees two years ago by the coronavirus pandemic, it was the companies in this area that brought about the second Massachusetts Miracle: diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments to battle COVID at record speed. I’m not just talking about Moderna. The contributions of companies like Ginkgo, ThermoFisher Scientific, MilliporeSigma, CIC Health, the Broad Institute, Hologic, Meenta, and others helped to save millions of lives.
What this second Massachusetts Miracle taught us is this: When we act collectively, innovate with urgency, and take risks in the name of massive potential impact, miracles can happen. And our challenge now is to maintain momentum and also reinvest in seeding new miracles.
In fact, our region is uniquely poised to build a third Massachusetts Miracle — transforming our current sick-care system to a true health care system.
We must imagine a future in which we secure our health instead of resigning ourselves to getting sick and only then receiving treatment. Disease preemption is desperately needed, and increasingly possible. Emerging diagnostics and interventions can improve not only our lifespan, but more importantly our “healthspan”: the period of time we can live in a healthy state free of disease.
We must ask: What if?
▪ What if we could actually catch disease early, before it takes hold, and intervene to delay it or completely derail it?
▪ What if we could, from a small draw of blood, detect pre-cancer activity in our cells, as well as tissue of origin?
▪ What if we could measure our antibody levels at home, evaluating our risk and planning accordingly when contagious disease cases are high?
▪ What if we could design a Global Pathogen Shield, developing vaccines for virus variants that have yet to emerge?
Innovators in this region can make these aspirations a reality: They are already doing so. Every day in Cambridge and Boston, scientific pioneers are taking the fiction out of science fiction. Our goal now should be to direct the molecular understanding and precision tools we have developed to treat late-stage disease toward catching and treating pre-diseases, and toward extending our healthspan. We can intervene before diseases take hold, and allow our citizens to live healthier lives. Massachusetts has all the tools in hand to make this miracle happen, if we summon the will.