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“Go after unmet needs”: Moderna co-founder Dr. Derrick Rossi on ethical entrepreneurship

Do superb science to make meaningful products, says U of T double alum
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Dr. Derrick Rossi is a U of T alum, co-founder of Moderna, and chief executive officer of Convelo Therapeutics. COURTESY OF DERRICK ROSSI
Dr. Derrick Rossi is a U of T alum, co-founder of Moderna, and chief executive officer of Convelo Therapeutics. COURTESY OF DERRICK ROSSI

As a co-founder of Moderna, a retired Harvard University professor, and one of Time’s top 100 influential people of 2011, it’s fair to say that Dr. Derrick Rossi has had an exceptional career.

After graduating from high school in Scarborough, Rossi earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medical and molecular genetics at U of T. Graduating in 1993, Rossi went on to earn his PhD at the University of Helsinki before performing postdoctoral research at Stanford University and landing a professorship at Harvard.

He commercialized his research in manipulating pluripotent stem cells with modified RNA by founding Moderna in 2010 — the name a contraction of ‘modified RNA.’ Rossi has always been a scientist first and foremost, and his work with the company now supplying 1.3 million COVID-19 vaccines to Canada was firmly related to research instead of revenue. His first chief executive officer (CEO) role was at Convelo Therapeutics, a biotech startup he joined in 2018.

Rossi is now semi-retired, having left Moderna in 2014 and Harvard in 2018 while remaining at Convelo. He spends his time bonding with his three daughters and consulting with the media on fighting COVID-19 misinformation.

The Varsity sat down with Rossi to discuss his academic experiences, hear his thoughts on ethics in ‘Big Pharma,’ and canvas his advice for the next generation of biotech entrepreneurs.

The Varsity: Recalling back to your time at U of T, are there any fond reminiscences that have stuck with you?

Derrick Rossi: Well, I first applied to U of T out of high school — and I actually got admitted to Trinity College — but I ended up going to Western University in London for my first few years of undergrad. So, then I transferred back to U of T for the third year of my undergrad, and I went into Victoria College.

Even though I was a science major — I was in the molecular genetics department — I did a minor in cinema studies. Funny thing for a science major to take away, but my minor in cinema studies was maybe my most fond memory of undergrad.

I do remember also being in the lab. I was really into music and rock and roll at the time, and I remember all the lab members of the Bernstein lab were very, very tolerant of me playing my music all the time — incredibly tolerant. I’d be playing it loud and nobody ever said a peep. It was a testament to the other lab people that they probably were not into what I was listening to, yet they recognized that it was a big part of my identity, and they totally tolerated the sonic hell that I put them through.

You know, you can be a scientist, and you’ve got to be good at your science, but you shouldn’t be restricted. Whenever you box yourself in one field and you don’t take inspiration from other fields, it’s a mistake. Art has always been a big part of my life.

TV: Speaking of your diverse experience, while the companies you’ve been associated with have all roughly been in the biotech umbrella, they cover such a wide range of research. How are you able to apply yourself to so many different areas of medical and biotechnical research?

DR: I would never be adverse to going into anything in biomedical sciences that was of interest to myself or anybody in the lab. I never said, “I’m a molecular biologist, and we only do molecular biology.”

I would have a large pool of money that I got from various grants and various funding agencies, and I never restricted us to working on what we said we were going to work on. Usually, you write a grant, and it’s a five-year grant, and you’re supposed to chart out what you’re going to do in year one, two, three, four, and five. To me, that’s an absurd scientific exercise. You should be doing in year two what the data from year one informed you to do, which might not necessarily be what you wrote in your grant for year two.

So, I never adhere to what I wrote in the grants. Rather, we pursued what we were interested in, what we were passionate about, and where the data led us. Grants are dumb.

TV: Is there any particular field right now you would say to pay the most attention to — not necessarily as an investor, but just as someone really interested in science?

DR: Artificial intelligence (AI) as applied to biological systems. I’ve recently seen some data from the New York Stem Cell Foundation — they got a large robotic array for handling cell-based assays. So they’ve removed all of the noise that comes from human handling the cells — and that’s a lot of noise.

All of that can be eliminated by automation, miniaturization, and robotics. Then, when you’ve cleaned up that noise, now you can bring in AI to analyze the data that you’ve generated. It has the ability to process information at orders of magnitude better than the human eye or the human brain can do it.

You could argue that it takes some of the humans out of it. And you don’t want to take out human creativity by any stretch of the imagination — you absolutely need that. But biological systems are highly susceptible to noise, and if you can get rid of the noise and use sophisticated systems for analyzing data, you can get to meaningful biological endpoints that we wouldn’t have been able to get to prior to that.

TV: As the CEO of a biotech company, could you speak to how you make ethical decisions?

DR: So, first and foremost, I want to only be involved in working on things that address a medical need for which there isn’t a good solution right now. Why waste my time on doing something that there’s already an answer for? Making money is not interesting at all to me.

When a medicine is developed — like a COVID-19 vaccine — it’s made by for-profit companies, and so obviously, they take advance orders from countries that can pay for the research and development and pay for the product. So, first-world companies and wealthy companies are lining up whereas countries that have less financial resources have not placed orders because they can’t.

For example, Canada — who’s placed an order of massive surplus for vaccines — they made various bets on different technologies. I think there’s like four times the number that they actually need. Well, once everybody in Canada gets vaccinated, they will start donating those vaccines to countries that don’t have the financial ability to purchase their own. 

Canada would do that anyhow — because it’s the morally correct thing to do — but you could argue that that would have been the only way to get vaccines to these nations. If you just left it up to the bottom line to dictate that, it wouldn’t have been successful. And it’s necessary: anybody who’s smart enough recognizes that it’s a ‘pandemic’ and that you have to stamp it out globally or it’s going to persist.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s not moral, that the rich countries are lining up, and they purchase their vaccines at the expense of countries with less resources. I actually would argue that it’s going to work out, and it is the only way it would have worked out because otherwise, how do those nations that don’t have the financial resources pay for a product from for-profit companies to vaccinate their people?

TV: If you were fresh out of your PhD — or earlier — and looking to found a biotech company to make a difference in the world, what would you do? What would you advise people in that situation to do these days?

DR: It’s two things in biomedicine. It always starts with the science — the science has to be superb and unequivocal. I’ve seen multibillion-dollar companies in biotech start with nothing but money and people, and I think that’s a terrible idea. Success is making products that are meaningful for patient health — in biotech, that’s the only measure of success. I don’t care how much money the initial public offering makes.

People are important, people that have ‘seen the movie before.’ Back to cinema again: if you’ve seen the movie before, you know what scene is coming next and so you can prepare for that. If you haven’t seen the movie before, when the scene changes all of a sudden, there’s a plot twist to your business. Mentorship experience is really important. 

To tie it back to your moral question: go after unmet needs, because there are unmet needs and people are suffering. So if you make a solution there, you can help patients, which is the real objective of this whole thing.

Those are the things I would say. Whatever you’re starting with, it’s got to be a great concept. It’s got to reach an unmet need and hopefully address that in a significant way. And gather people around you that have seen the movie before, who can help you navigate your way through it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.