The first rule of improv is to agree and say “yes.” Saying “no" during a scene crashes it to a halt. But saying yes opens a whole world of possibilities, and with the right imagination, you'll go places you never dreamed.
In many ways, the brainstorming process at Flagship Pioneering is like a game of improv, says general partner Avak Kahvejian.
"A lot of it has to do with talking to each other," he says. "And allowing each other to dream. Allowing each other to imagine, allowing each other to pose crazy questions."
Asking "What if?" is the guiding force behind Flagship, a company that conceives, creates and launches what it calls "bioplatform companies," each of which uses a new technological capability or technology and applies it to create multiple medicines or biotechnologies.
Each company at Flagship has a "bioplatform at the core that can generate many potential therapeutics and can be directed towards many different disease areas," Kahvejian says.
Flagship is often incorrectly referred to as a venture capital firm, but that's a misconception. Instead of funding outside companies, Flagship ideates, creates and launches its own.
Perhaps the most famous example of Flagship's companies is Moderna, makers of an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine. For Moderna, its "bioplatform" is mRNA, and it has several other mRNA medicines in its pipeline for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including vaccines for the flu, different COVID-19 variants, cancers and Zika.
Now, Flagship is launching ProFound Therapeutics, and like its other companies, ProFound started by asking a pivotal question.
"It started with the question, 'Could there be more proteins than the ones we know?'" says Kahvejian, who is also cofounder and CEO ProFound.
That answer was “yes.”
"What ProFound has done is discovered a whole universe of new, undiscovered proteins in the human body," Kahvejian says. "There are tens of thousands of new proteins that we could essentially use as therapies themselves, or design therapies against, and that's what the company has embarked on, and what has us so excited about it."
Science has identified some of the most important therapeutics — such as erythropoietin for treating anemia and insulin for treating diabetes — within the proteins encoded by the human genome, Kahvejian notes.
"So, if you find more human proteins, you can just imagine more things like that emerging," he says.
Juggling jobs and companies
Many leaders say they wear "a lot of hats" at work, but for Kahvejian that's actually true. As a partner at Flagship Pioneering since 2011, his job is never the same from day to day. He leads a team to invent and launch new therapeutic platforms and in doing so, bounces between companies and responsibilities the way other people bounce between meetings.
"It really depends, hour-on-the-hour. I'm working on multiple companies at various stages of the evolution," he says.
He might be exploring a new area of biology and technology; making strategic decisions about how to build a new company; or working in his capacity as a board member for some of Flagship's companies.
I was very much aching to apply biology to human health, to having an impact, and working in a much more interdisciplinary fashion.
Partner, Flagship Pioneering
For instance, Kahvejian served as founding president and CEO of Rubius Therapeutics; as founding CEO of Ring Therapeutics, Cellarity, and Laronde; and co-CEO of Generate, before handing those roles over to his successors, and still serves on the boards of Ring, Cellarity and Laronde.
Flagship starts by investing in these companies itself before eventually opening them up to outside investors and sometimes going public, but Flagship is always involved even as the companies mature.
"It is a gradual process of having these companies emerge from Flagship," Kahvejian says. "We consider ourselves founders of these entities; we're, in the beginning, sole owners of these entities. We're then principal owners of these entities. And we play a role, not only in their growth, but also in helping shape their strategy. We're serving on the boards of these companies. Sometimes we have operational involvement in some aspects of the company. So, we are with these companies for the long run."
Asking the right questions
Flagship launches about six to eight new companies a year, and they all start with an idea, a question or an area of interest. For Ring Therapeutics, for instance, that question was, "What if there are viruses that live in and among us that don't cause disease?" Kahvejian says.
"That's essentially a conversation starter that helps us with that emergent process of coming up with a bioplatform," he says. "It doesn't happen necessarily instantaneously. But through the process of asking and answering these questions, we end up turning over interesting findings, we end up connecting interesting dots, we end up validating that we may not be crazy and that there might be a path forward and that there could be a platform."
In the case of Ring Therapeutics, nucleic acid therapies using a novel viral vector platform.
"We’ve discovered a large family of commensal viruses and we're turning those into the next DNA medicine," Kahvejian says.
This kind of work suits Kahvejian. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and studied with Nahum Sonenberg — who Kahvejian described as the "godfather of mRNA translation" — but found that academia wasn't for him.
"I'm a tinkerer. I'm a scientist at heart and have always wanted to be at the cutting edge of human knowledge," he says.
But he longed to have more of an impact on people's lives and work outside of the silos of academia.
"I was very much aching to apply biology to human health, to having an impact, and working in a much more interdisciplinary fashion," he says.
His work at Flagship marries his scientific curiosity, his quest for invention, and his entrepreneurial excitement. Nothing ever gets old, stale or boring. It can't, just by nature of the job. And that's the ideal environment for his personality, which he says is fueled by "extreme curiosity and, of course the love for science."
"Sometimes I have to restrain my curiosity because I constantly want to create the next new thing," he says. Luckily, he can.
"Most people who hear what we do are somewhat incredulous and say, ‘Wow, that sounds like a dream job,’" he says. "It sounds like a great place to be and a great mandate to be given."