Noubar Afeyan - Flagship Ventures

Making the early bet

Name: Noubar Afeyan
Title: Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures; co-founder and chairman of Moderna Therapeutics

If Moderna Therapeutics is the belle of the biotech ball right now, then Noubar Afeyan is one of her proud papas. Afeyan co-founded the company with esteemed drug delivery guru Robert Langer in 2011 out of his Flagship VentureLabs, the arm of Flagship Ventures that creates and launches startups. In March, Flagship closed a $537 million fund that's roughly double the size of its prior fund, which closed at $269 million in 2010.

Moderna has captivated investors with its outrageously ambitious premise--to use modified messenger RNA (mRNA) to enable the body's own cells to create virtually any known protein including antibodies and vaccines.

The creation of a big-picture, early-stage biotech startup based on stem cell science at that time was an attractive prospect to very few. But Afeyan was willing to make that bet. It has paid off in a big way so far--with at least $650 million in financing so far and a valuation reportedly in excess of $1 billion. It raised $500 million in January alone.

In fact, Moderna is the only early-stage, private biotech to have such a high valuation, according to The Wall Street Journal. And it still has plenty of dry powder with $900 million in cash on hand at Jan. 13. That's on par with some of its flushest Internet peers. Moderna won't have to face an IPO anytime for years to come, unless its backers simply prefer to take it public.

Afeyan is Armenian, born in Beirut, Lebanon. Then his family moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1976. He earned his PhD in biochemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987.

Shortly thereafter, he founded his first company, PerSeptive Biosystems, which was acquired in 1998 in a $360 million all-stock deal by Perkin-Elmer (which later became Applera). Afeyan became the SVP and CBO of Applera where he oversaw the creation of Celera Genomics.

Afeyan founded Flagship Ventures in 2000, right at the height of the genomics bubble on Wall Street. Since then the firm has weathered a couple of up-and-down biotech cycles and now has more than $900 million under management. Flagship raised its most recent $270 million fund in 2012. In December, it filed with the SEC to raise a $350 million fund, and that fundraising is ongoing.

Flagship is typically a lead investor, and more than 80% of its investments are in the seed or first round. It will typically invest up to $7 million to $15 million per portfolio company. It has an active portfolio of more than 40 companies and has founded more than 27 startups via its VentureLabs unit. In addition to therapeutics, Flagship also starts and invests in diagnostics, laboratory equipment, medical devices, alternative energy and materials companies.

In fact in 2012, Afeyan received a Technology Pioneer award from the World Economic Forum in recognition for his work on solar fuel startup Joule Unlimited.

The firm has had at least 8 IPOs during the ongoing IPO window, including early-stage biotechs such as Agios ($AGIO) and Acceleron ($XLRN), which are now worth $3.9 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively.

-- Stacy Lawrence (email | twitter)

Noubar Afeyan - Flagship Ventures
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