The 2021 Pontifical Hero Award for Inspiration
for leadership and steadfast dedication to protecting all of humanity
This year has proven that science can change the world. But even the most rigorous experiments and dedicated teams require a leader. When the world was searching desperately for COVID-19 vaccines, Stéphane Bancel became the leader we needed to get the job done.
Bancel is the CEO of Moderna Inc., a company that has pursued an mRNA-based platform for medicine. Such an approach teaches the body to make proteins needed to cure disease from within the body itself. Moderna’s first targets consisted of cancers and genetic diseases, but it became clear that this platform also had applications for infectious diseases like Zika Virus, flu and cytomegalovirus. However, Moderna will go down in history for developing a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine in less than one year, a record in the history of vaccine development.
For this outstanding scientific achievement, Moderna has become a household name. Bancel, as the leader of that team, has done the world an invaluable service. Bancel has always pushed himself to be at the forefront of scientific innovation. After attending school, university and graduate school in France, Bancel decided to pursue another master’s degree at the University of Minnesota – drawn by the pace of biomedical innovation there. Soon, Bancel found himself at Harvard Business School and later, on the front lines of that innovation with roles at Eli Lilly and the French pharma giant BioMerieux.
His life would change in 2011 when CEO of Flagship Startups, Noubar Afeyan, tapped Bancel to lead one of his fledgling startups examining the power of mRNA technology. In retrospect, this decision would go on to change Bancel’s life, and perhaps, lead to the coronavirus vaccines in millions of arms today.
In 2020, Bancel, now at Moderna Inc., recognized that his company had the technology to help end a brutal and deadly pandemic. Moderna pivoted its entire operation towards the development, testing and manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines. Infused with capital from the United States government, the company had the resources to accelerate the clinical trial process while maintaining the highest standards of practice.
Resources without leadership are often wasted, and Bancel has been that guiding light for Moderna – even in uncertain times. An mRNA vaccine had never been approved by the FDA, but he and his team worked around the clock – skipping birthdays, weekends and family time in the midst of disaster. The herculean effort paid off and in December 2020 when the results of their careful clinical trials were clear: the vaccine was safe, effective, and in days it was on the front lines of the pandemic.
The Moderna vaccine has been called a “light at the end of the tunnel.” It is with sincere gratitude for his leadership and steadfast dedication to protecting all of humanity, that we award Stéphane Bancel and the Moderna team the 2021 Pontifical Hero Award for Inspiration.