- 2 years ago
11 April 2022
It was the most sought after pharma job of 2021, possibly of the decade, yet the man who got it never even applied.
Former MSD managing director Michael Azrak got a call in June about a role going as the inaugural local general manager for Moderna. Normally he didn’t take calls from headhunters but he took this one.
“I was intrigued about Moderna,” he told MedNews when we sat down last week. “I knew about it because MSD initially owned a 10 per cent stake, and I remember the Merck scientists telling me how the mRNA platform was going to revolutionise vaccines.
“But I’m a curious person and the more I spoke with the senior people at Moderna, the more I understood they wanted to do something very different here. They essentially wanted to disrupt healthcare and were prepared to do things that the big pharma model just didn’t accommodate.”
From property to big pharma
Few know Azrak started out as an economist in property. He was working on a relocation project for Sanofi when the client suggested he would be good in sales, kicking off that sense of curiosity that saw him take a role as a Sanofi sales rep working on its Panamax account.
“And here I am 30 years later,” he says. “I just loved it. How could you not love this industry? I’ve been blessed: Sanofi, Pfizer, Allergan, MSD – incredible companies to learn from.”
His pharma career has also taken Azrak around the globe, from Johannesburg in South Africa to Shanghai in China then Switzerland before returning to Australia in 2018. He points out all these roles were operational; he likes working at the coalface, closer to patients.
Yet after three and a half years at the helm of MSD in Australia, Azrak knew it was only a matter of time before he would be transferred overseas again, most likely to the US.
“I’m not someone who sees it as healthy for managing directors to be enrolled beyond five years,” he said. “Regeneration is good for companies, good for individuals, so when I was weighing up ‘should I stay or should I go’, all this was considered.”
On the other hand, Moderna offered a chance to do something very different.
“If you look at Moderna throughout the pandemic, it’s a classic case of the insurgent versus the incumbents. When you’re an insurgent, you don’t have that corporate memory that slows you down.
“Stéphane Bancel’s vision was for an organisation with minimal hierarchy, one that was both global and local with no regions, no large apparatus or infrastructure, and that was really attractive.
“It was clear to me from the start the job was going to be all about empowerment and accountability. I’m very results-focused but I wanted to make an impact on Australia, to leave a legacy, so when Stéphane said Moderna would look at onshore manufacturing, it was a no brainer. It was a white piece of paper.”
Running a small, agile ship
Azrak doesn’t know how many people actually applied for his job, and he doesn’t care. His appointment was announced last October – Moderna’s third local employee. He’s been reporting directly to Bancel, the company’s founder and CEO.
It’s clear Azrak is relishing the new venture, enthusiastically reciting four Moderna ‘mindsets’ that particularly resonate with him: behave like a business owner, pivot fearlessly, question convention, and accept risk – the ‘guardrails’ that allow him to make decisions he could never have made under the big pharma model – and to achieve extraordinary success in just six months.
He has inked Australia’s first mRNA sovereign manufacturing deal and the first manufacturing deal for Moderna, all while managing his own diary, engaging in more than 50 media interviews, and building a commercial footprint from scratch.
“We’re still only 15 people in the APAC region,” he says of his local team. “Over time, we will probably land at 30 or 40 people, excluding manufacturing. I want smart people around the leadership table with me, but that’s pretty much it.
“My vision is not to bring everything in-house but instead tap into the best people in agencies or service providers. That gives you the best of both worlds.”
Moderna jobs are scarce, the company currently recruiting an APAC HR director, but for those hoping to be one of the lucky few to join this mRNA juggernaut, Azrak says mindset is key.
“As we hire, we are obsessed with looking for mindsets that will enable people to thrive and us to deliver the best future version of Moderna,” he says. “We think in decades, not quarters, and it’s important there is a lot of resilience when you join a start-up because it will not be perfect. That’s also fun, though, as it forces you to focus on what’s really important.”
Negotiating a national deal
When Azrak came on board last year, the company was already in discussions with the Government.
“It was a very robust process,” he says. “There were discussions with both Moderna and Pfizer, but Pfizer very quickly indicated it wasn’t interested.
“The question we get is, how did you guys get this done so quickly? What got it over the line was that we all had the same endgame in mind. To go from an in-principal to a finalised agreement in three months took a mission-orientated approach, commitment and a lot of hard work.
“We had regular check-in points along the way but to move as quickly as we did, the core team had to be empowered and entrusted. We had people from departmental offices on calls at 6am on Saturdays and on Sundays. It was the only way we could make it work.”
Azrak tells of dealing with not just one federal government department but four: Health, Industry, Finance and Treasury – plus state governments. He is still working with the Victorian Government on its deal, expected to be signed by the end of the month.
Still to be determined is the location of the mRNA facility, the parties have narrowed it down to three potential greenfield locations.
“I’m hoping to break ground by the middle of the year,” says Azrak.
The deal means Moderna will establish its Australian headquarters in Melbourne, Azrak preparing to move south from his Sydney home before the new office opens, scheduled for April 2023.
What keeps Azrak up at night?
Having just signed one of the largest pharmaceutical deals in Australia’s history, you’d think little would worry Azrak. Indeed, his naturally calm demeanour and relaxed style may belie the considered, strategic thinker he clearly is. Azrak is a man looking to learn, that curiosity so evident in his eyes and eagerness to discover new ideas.
Yet with the ambitious goal of having the southern hemisphere’s first mRNA facility up and running by the end of 2024 on his shoulders, this project is not without risk.
“mRNA is very scalable, it’s high-tech with a lot of automation, but what keeps me up at night is the number of double or high-science degrees we need to run this facility,” he says. “It’s a very different manufacturing process. There’s a lot of IP.”
Yet when he thinks about the promise of mRNA, and the legacy it offers for Australia, Azrak knows it is worth the risk and effort, especially for a man who has dedicated his life to serving patients.
“If you look at Moderna’s 45 development programs, a significant portion is in vaccines, but there’s also therapeutics, gene editing, yet 95 per cent of the raw materials for these is the same. This makes development so much faster and, from a regulator standpoint, it should also accelerate approval. That’s what I’m really excited about.”
If the promise of homegrown mRNA isn’t enough, Moderna is also bringing its mRNA Access program, giving Australian researchers and academics access to the same bespoke early development platform used by Moderna’s scientists and targeting around 100 neglected diseases.
“The technology enables you to be disruptive and Moderna has the capability and the means to support this type of work, but there is also this belief we can learn from others,” he said. “We already have the University of Queensland, the Doherty Institute, Institute Pasteur and McGill University onboard, but I can tell you, more Australian institutions are looking to participate. This is fantastic for the world.”
With his decades of industry experience and having witnessed great therapeutic breakthroughs in monoclonal antibodies and immunotherapies for cancer, Azrak says Australia “didn’t participate to the extent it could have, or would have liked” due to a lack of local R&D facilities. The Moderna deal means this won’t be repeated in mRNA.
As for Moderna, while the company is only 11 years young, Azrak is adamant its future path is not that of the big pharmas he left behind.
“It’s not in our gene set,” he says firmly. “Everything for us is about the mRNA platform, and how quickly we can bring forward the innovations patients are counting on. For that, we need to be fast and light.”