Flagship Pioneering CEO, Moderna co-founder, Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87 to deliver Class of 2024 Commencement address

Afeyan, a member of the MIT Corporation, will speak at the OneMIT Ceremony on the second of three days of Commencement proceedings

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Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87, an American-Canadian philanthropist and entrepreneur best known for co-founding the biotechnology company Moderna, will speak at the 2024 OneMIT Commencement Ceremony May 30.

Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87, an American-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist best known for co-founding the biotechnology company Moderna, will speak at the 2024 OneMIT Commencement Ceremony May 30.

Dr. Afeyan is the Chief Executive Officer of Flagship Pioneering, a biotechnology venture capital company that has founded over 100 new biotechnology companies, including Moderna and Editas Medicine. He is currently a member of the MIT Corporation. 

Afeyan was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents and immigrated to Montreal following the Lebanese Civil War. Afeyan studied Chemical Engineering at McGill University (BS) and biochemical engineering at MIT (Ph.D).

Among his numerous accolades, Afeyan has built over 70 life science and technology startups, received the National Order of Merit from Lebanon, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. 

The Tech sat down with Afeyan to discuss his background, philanthropic work, and journey to his current position at the intersection of basic research and venture capital.

On the Institute’s special qualities

Afeyan involvement with the MIT community traces back decades to when he was a graduate student. From 2000 to 2016, Afeyan was a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, teaching classes in innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership. 

Afeyan believes that MIT is unique in the way that it positions itself as an institution geared toward shaping the future. He stated that MIT teaches its students how to “prosecute the future,” which stems from recognizing that “no problems can’t be solved.” Afeyan said that anybody who comes to the Institute departs with both the “burden and opportunity” to tackle challenging problems.

Afeyan’s journey in the biotechnology sector 

In his words, Afeyan went down an “unusual path” when the biotechnology industry was in its nascent stages. 

Afeyan started his first company in 1987, the year during which he completed his Ph.D. One of Afeyan’s early companies, PerSeptive Biosystems, which was founded in 1989, was acquired in 1998 by PerkinElmer for 360 million dollars.

During the 1990s, Afeyan’s work in the realm of startups led him to consider the formation of a centralized institution to catalyze the formation of multiple new companies at once, a concept that he termed “parallel entrepreneurship.” In 1999, Afeyan founded Flagship Pioneering, previously known as Flagship Ventures, with this vision. 

When asked about any particular individuals at MIT who strongly influenced his career trajectory, Afeyan highlighted his thesis advisor, the late Institute Professor Daniel Wang SB ’59 SM ’61. Wang was regarded as one of the “founding fathers” in the field of biochemical engineering. Afeyan stated that Wang’s academic family tree of students was “quite remarkable.”

With regards to the individuals that he works with today, Afeyan stated that Professors Andrew Lo and Daron Acemoglu have “pioneered new thoughts”— Lo in finance and Acemoglu in economics. 

Humanitarian efforts

Afeyan has also led various philanthropic initiatives, which include the construction of the United World College Dilijan School in Armenia and the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, an award recognizing individuals involved in humanitarian work across the globe.

With the success from his entrepreneurial endeavors, Afeyan saw an obligation to become involved in philanthropy. Afeyan cited his background as an impetus for such work, alluding to his familial ties to the Armenian Genocide during World War I. He stated that he feels a responsibility to help people “cope with the aftermath” of such events and avert such situations in the first place.

Attitudes for success 

With decades of experience, Afeyan described innovation and entrepreneurship as a “Darwinian” evolutionary process that involves “variation, selection, and iteration.” Afeyan stated that evolution could not take place without failure, and akin to the industry that he works in, “failure is a necessity for success.” 

Afeyan noted, however, that a pitfall that comes with learning from failures is that people try to take “too much from” a singular event of failure. He believes that the best learning comes from simultaneously advancing multiple different approaches and letting the circumstances “inform at the ensemble level.” He said, “You have to recognize that if you’re not achieving failure, you’re probably not going to be successful.”

As an immigrant himself, Afeyan emphasized an “immigrant” mindset that he took when he was exploring new fields. “I immigrated to new technologies, new fields, new science, new activities,” he said.

Additionally, Afeyan believes that one should strive towards change and improvement in new realms rather than be an expert in a singular discipline. He highlighted the importance of leaving one’s comfort zone: Afeyan stated that being relatively new to an area enabled him to work “much better.” 

Commencement Exercises

Recent Commencement speakers include popular Youtuber Mark Rober (2023), director-general of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78 PhD ’81 (2022), and civil rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson (2021).

MIT’s Commencement celebrations will take place over three days from May 29 to May 31. The undergraduate Class of 2024 will receive diplomas on Killian Court May 31. Recognition ceremonies for advanced degree recipients will be held on all three days of Commencement exercises. 

All Degree candidates are invited to attend the OneMIT Commencement Ceremony on May 30. Events will include speeches, the turning of the Brass Rat, and a rendition of the School Song.