Robert Langer: Creating things that could change the world

Robert Langer

CREDIT: MIT

Robert S. Langer is the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, one of only 11 Institute Professors, MIT’s highest honor for a faculty member. He has authored more than 1250 articles and is the most-cited engineer in history, with more than 163,000 citations, for an h-index of 203. At 43, he became the youngest person ever elected to all three American science academies.

Langer’s entrepreneurial record is, arguably, even more impressive than his academic credentials. He holds more than 1000 patents, which have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 300 companies. He has helped found at least two dozen biotech companies, with foci ranging from cancer drug delivery to products for hair and skin. Langer is one of only seven people who have won both the U.S. National Medal of Science (2006) and the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2011).

“About a year later, Alex Klibanov, a professor at MIT, said, ‘Bob, we should start a company.’ ”

This is a compilation of two interviews, one hosted by LabCentral, a biotech incubator and accelerator in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the other by telephone with Science Careers. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why did you become a scientist?
A: In my day, there was this company called A.C. Gilbert that made these great erector, chemistry, and microscope sets. I got them for various birthdays. Later on, in high school, I was good in math and science and terrible in everything else. People would say to me, “You should become an engineer.” I didn't know what that was; I thought engineers ran railroad cars. I went to Cornell and majored in engineering. My first term, the only class I liked and did OK in was chemistry, so I decided I would be a chemical engineer.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, I wasn't really that excited about research. I didn't want a standard chemical engineering job. When I graduated with my doctorate in 1974, the standard chemical engineering job was to work at an oil company. I wasn't excited about that. So I kept looking for things I felt would make an impact that would help people.I ended up working as a postdoc with Judah Folkman, a surgeon at Boston Children's Hospital. He had this idea that if you could stop blood vessels, maybe that would be a way to stop cancer. I thought, “Boy, this is a lot better than oil companies.” If it worked, it would be incredible.

Q: How did you go from scientist to entrepreneur?
A: My project was to isolate the first angiogenesis inhibitors. We invented microparticles that release an inhibitor of blood vessel growth to starve the growing tumors. I thought, “We'll publish our work on microparticles, and everybody will use them clinically.” And then nobody did. Nobody used them to help people.

So, we patented them and licensed them. After about 10 years, somebody called me. They were going to work with the microspheres we developed, but they did only an experiment or two a year. I was frustrated. About a year later, Alex Klibanov, a professor at MIT, said, “Bob, we should start a company.” And so we started a little company called Enzytech. And then it merged with Alkermes, all based on these microspheres. And it ended up doing quite well.

I could see that by having these little companies, you could make an enormous impact. We just kept doing it, and we continue to do it. It almost became a culture in the lab. But that was not necessarily my intent.

Robert Langer

Robert Langer

CREDIT: Stu Rosner Photography

Q: What, in your view, is the most common mistake scientists make when trying to launch a company?
A: Starting too early. It is a long road in the medical area. If you start up too early, you may have trouble getting investment. Even if you succeed, then by the time you get to clinical trials, the investors may get tired.

Q: What is the connection between graduate science education and entrepreneurship?
A: When you're a student, you're judged by how well you answer questions. Somebody else asks the questions, and if you give good answers, you’ll get a good grade. But in life, you're judged by how good your questions are. You want students and postdocs to transition from giving good answers to asking good questions. Then they'll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something—if they ask good questions.

When somebody is a student or postdoc, what is going to help them through is to be stretched. That may be a little bit uncomfortable. But feeling some of the discomfort, knowing how to get through it—the fact that you can prove to yourself that you can get through, and you can do well—that is wonderful, as long as it is not too painful.

Q: Do institutions need to consider shifting significantly from their research mission in order to encourage alternate career paths? Ultimately, students have to focus on their research projects, right?
A: That’s right. I would worry about that. Not that we can't create better educational tools. What is really good about the MIT environment is exposure. Being in Kendall Square, you have interactions with the companies—lots of top-flight researchers at both MIT and nearby industry. MIT has the $100K competitions; that's like MIT's sport. People work on business plans and presentations. I feel that universities should create opportunities so students can take advantage of them if they want, but not if they don't.

Some people might want to do detailed, careful research. That's fine, too. Other people take totally different careers, like law. I have students become venture capitalists. I don't think there is any one right way. I think what you want is to give students really good training and then have them get enough exposure so that they can think for themselves about what they want to do.

Q: Your laboratory is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. Are you, by necessity, a hands-off mentor?
A: My big goal is to be supportive. If somebody has needed their hand held, I have held it. I think about everyone as individuals. What is going to push them to the point where they'll be really great? It is not that unlike children growing up. I want them to grow.

Q: What do you consider your biggest success?
A: My students. They are professors at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Caltech—institutions all over the world. They are members of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, MacArthur prize winners, and CEOs and presidents of top companies.

Q:  How do you advise scientists to approach their careers?
A: I always tell people, “Just follow your heart. Pick something you think you are going to love.” To me, that is the most important thing.

Q: What is your take home message to budding scientist-entrepreneurs?
A: Do great science. Don't sacrifice publishing good science to be secretive. Then go to the next step and patent them, and do licensing and start companies. That can be incredibly fulfilling because it gives you the opportunity to take your ideas—and give your students the opportunities to take their ideas along with you—and create things that could change the world and make it a better place.

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