Moderna, facing scrutiny of its corporate culture, names UMMS academic as CSO

Moderna has named Melissa Moore as CSO of its mRNA platform. The deep-pocketed biotech lured Moore from the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) to fill the gap left by ex-Millennium Pharmaceuticals CSO Joseph Bolen, who departed Moderna in October after two years in the role.

Moore arrives at Moderna with a track record of researching RNA and RNA-protein (RNP) complexes, from the basic structures of the molecules to their role in human diseases. Along the way, Moore has shed light on how mRNA is translated into proteins, explored the role of damaged RNA in neurodegenerative diseases, helped to found UMMS translational medicine group RNA Therapeutics Institute and discovered an inhibitor of the molecular machine known as the spliceosome.

What Moore hasn’t done, until now, is serve as CSO of a biotech.

Given that Moore has taken the CSO role at the world’s most closely watched private drug developer, she is unlikely to have much time to find her feet. And, from an industry reputation perspective, Moore has big boots to fill. With a decade of success at Millennium behind him, Bolen looked like a copper-bottomed hire. But, two years after his high-profile appointment, Bolen left via the backdoor, with a “resigned” status on LinkedIn the only public indication of his departure.

The circumstances of Bolen’s exit--and what they say about the corporate culture at Moderna--are one of the subjects of a lengthy feature in Stat. According to anonymous insiders quoted in the feature, Bolen saw his sphere of influence within Moderna chipped away by the appointment of other executives until he was left overseeing “a postage stamp”-sized operation. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel doesn’t dispute the changes to the power structure during Bolen’s time at the firm but maintains the departure was amicable.

That story is one of several in the feature that paint Moderna as the biotech equivalent of Amazon, a secretive company known for driving its employees particularly hard. Ex-employees of both companies describe working environments that quickly and remorselessly filter out anyone who doesn’t quickly meet their exacting standards.

Or, as Moderna CFO Lorence Kim puts it: “We force everyone to grow with the company at unprecedented speed. Some people grow with the company; others don’t.”

Yet Moderna, which released news of Moore’s appointment hours after the Stat feature went live, is publicly trying to present itself as a company with a more supporting culture than that of the brutal, dog-eat-dog environment sketched in media coverage.

“We have been looking for an exceptional scientific leader with expertise across molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics of mRNA to direct our basic science research efforts,” Moderna President Dr. Stephen Hoge said in a statement. “But, just as important, we have been looking for someone who could mentor and inspire Moderna’s large and growing scientific team.”