The story behind the story of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.


Talented people who want to innovate often see their innovations fall into the “valley of death,” which means that their innovations don’t result in successful commercial products. Why is that? Because talent is often not enough.

Here is a gripping story about a scientist who faced huge obstacles to change the world. Dr. Katalin Kariko, the inventor of the non-immunogenic messenger RNA which is now used all over the world to vaccinate people against the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, spent the last 40 years of her life trying to develop a successful application for RNA.

Forty years ago, Kariko, a hard-working and brilliant Ph.D. student in Hungary, tried to develop short RNA for antiviral therapy. But the lab she was working at in Hungary ran out of money. When Kariko later obtained a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 to develop mRNA for therapy, she couldn’t find any funding.

At one point in Kariko’s life, there were seven people applying for research grants. Six of them got their grant approved. The only one who didn’t get her grant approved was Katalin Kariko. Why was that? Because her idea of using mRNA was too unconventional. The big bureaucracy had failed Kariko.

The reason why Kariko was ultimately successful was because of two informal, chance encounters:

The first informal chance encounter was in front of a Xerox machine in 1998 at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Dr. Kariko met Dr. Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D., an immunologist. At that time, Weissman had just arrived from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he was working as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lab. Weissman’s plan was to develop a vaccine against HIV. As Weissman and Kariko talked informally over the copy machine, Kariko told Weissman about her work with mRNA and offered to make a messenger RNA for Weissman’s vaccine research.

As a result of this chance encounter, Weissman and Kariko started to collaborate. Kariko manufactured the mRNA and Weissman tested those on cultured human immune cells. Their results suggested that the mRNA Kariko made was very inflammatory, unfit for medical use. Kariko made changes to the mRNA, Weissman tested them, and, eventually, the pair discovered how to make the mRNA non-inflammatory.

The second encounter was in 2013 with Dr. Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech. Dr. Kariko was invited by BioNTech to give a lecture in Mainz, Germany about her patented technique of making non-inflammatory messenger RNA. Sahin was very impressed by her technique and hired her on the spot to be a vice president, and later senior vice president, in his company.


Without those two encounters, Katalin Kariko’s non-inflammatory messenger RNA could have fallen into the “valley of death,” and we might not have the Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines that have been so instrumental this year in slowing down the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fact that talent itself is frequently not enough for successful innovations is the theme of our latest book: Riding the Monster: Five ways to innovate inside bureaucracies.

In this book, my husband, Dr. Eric Haseltine and I give five real-life historical case studies that demonstrate how relationships and informal gatherings were key to successful innovations, including the creation of the internet by a loose collection of graduate students in 1969.

Our equation for innovation is:

Innovation = (Talent + Relationships) divided by Formality.

What Haseltine and I mean by that equation is that for innovations to be successful we not only need talented people, but we also need relationships based on trust and respect and we need informal get-togethers. The more informal the connections between talented people, the more innovation they will trigger.

As Dr. Vinton Cerf, one of the pioneers of the internet says: For innovation to happen, it is important to collaborate informally with other people on common goals and take risks while respecting other people’s opinions and having humility.”

Unfortunately, big bureaucracies are typically very slow to change, and too formal to foster innovations.

So, if you want to create a successful innovation, like Dr. Kariko’s mRNA, bring relationships and informality into the equation. Put brilliant friends together who trust and respect each other and give them a problem to solve while feeding them good food and drinks and the result might blow your mind.