Issue Date: March 26, 2012
“Anybody can get lucky once,” says John T. Santini Jr., a former graduate student of Robert S. Langer’s and a cofounder with Langer of the company MicroCHIPS. “It’s a little harder to get lucky 25 times.”
Langer, 63, has shown time and again that he’s no one-hit wonder. This serial entrepreneur has cofounded about 25 companies and licensed technology to scores more. All that commercialization is in service of his primary goal—making sure his inventions help improve health.
“Most of what goes on in my lab I like to think is cutting-edge chemical and bioengineering research that I hope will change the world—lead to new medical treatments, new devices, new ways of thinking,” says Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the recipient of the 2012 Priestley Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society. In nearly 35 years at MIT, Langer has racked up more than 1,100 publications and more than 800 issued or pending patents.
Langer has been so successful because he focuses on the big picture, observers say.
“He quite uniquely thinks about the big picture, about the gestalt, about what is needed to help people, about what are the big problems that need to be tackled,” says David Berry, a former graduate student of Langer’s who now works at the venture firm Flagship Ventures. Langer focuses on how to have an impact on people’s lives—forming companies and doing great science are just pieces of that, Berry says.
Santini, who is now chief executive officer of On Demand Therapeutics, agrees. “A successful entrepreneur—and this is particularly true with Bob—goes after big, difficult problems where the need is great.” And being told that a problem is insurmountable just makes Langer more determined to solve it, Santini notes.
Howard B. Rosen, who was a graduate student of Langer’s in the early 1980s and went on to become the president of the drug delivery company ALZA, attributes Langer’s entrepreneurial success to an endless stream of ideas and a practical focus. “You’d like to follow him around with a bucket and capture those ideas,” Rosen says. Langer is very good at identifying problems and technologies that might actually solve them, Rosen notes.
Mark E. Davis, a chemical engineering professor at California Institute of Technology, concurs. “He probably has more good ideas in one week than I’ve had in my whole career. He’s just so creative,” Davis says. “It’s rare when you find somebody who has so many good ideas coming and coming and coming all the time.”
Most academics who try the commercialization route are lucky if one company makes it. Langer has achieved success many times over. (Langer himself says that the number of companies he has founded is hard to pin down and the number depends on how one defines “found.” For example, some companies are based on technology licensed from Langer’s lab, but he is not otherwise involved.)
But such success wasn’t always inevitable. Langer’s first patents—on polymer systems for controlled release of macromolecules—were tough to obtain.
“It was a struggle to get them,” Langer says. At first people just didn’t believe the technology could work, and then they reversed themselves and said that it was obvious. To get the first patent, Langer scoured the literature and found a paper that said his results were surprising and went against conventional thinking. He had to get the authors of the paper to sign an affidavit saying that they had really written that. And even after he landed the patents, he struggled to get companies interested in licensing them.
In 1983, that struggle started to change when a company called International Minerals & Chemicals asked Langer to consult for them. The firm wanted to use Langer’s polymers to deliver animal hormones. In exchange for research funding and a consulting fee, the company would get a license and Langer as a consultant. The following year the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. approached him with a similar offer to deliver human hormones.
“I thought this was a great model,” Langer says. “We got grant money, I got personal money, and, most importantly, I thought our stuff was really going to help people—or at least animals.”
But things didn’t work quite the way Langer hoped. “If it didn’t work right the first time—and science doesn’t work right the first time—they would give up or tell me it wasn’t going to work,” he recalls. The company scientists assigned to the projects at each of these large companies didn’t have a strong internal belief in the technology, he adds.
The experience convinced Langer that his technology had a better chance of being incorporated in products in small companies where individuals would be more willing to champion development than in large firms like IMC and Lilly. In 1985, he got his first taste of working with a small company. Baltimore-based Nova Pharmaceuticals came looking for patents to license. Langer proposed they use the polyanhydrides developed in his lab to deliver brain cancer treatments.
“It was so different,” Langer says. “This tiny company was probably going to live or die on our technology, and they would walk through walls to get it to work. That made an impression on me.”
That experience convinced Langer that small companies were the way to go. By the mid-1980s, venture capitalists had already been approaching Langer for a couple of years about starting a company. After the experience with Nova, “it became clear to me that it was a good idea,” he says.
So when his MIT colleague Alexander M. Klibanov suggested starting a company, Langer was ready. They pooled technology from their labs into a single firm called Enzytech. From Langer’s lab, the company developed microspheres for drug delivery applications. Klibanov’s contribution was new ways to produce food ingredients. (The company later split into Enzytech and Opta Foods, and the revamped Enzytech was bought by Alkermes in 1992.)
Enzytech was just the first in a long string of start-ups under Langer’s belt. But Langer doesn’t create companies capriciously. He has a set of five criteria that help him decide whether starting a firm is the right option for particular research findings.
First, the technology must be a “platform technology” suitable for multiple applications. If something like a microsphere or nanosphere, for example, gets licensed to a single company, the company is likely to use it for a single application. In that case, “you’re not maximizing the use of that technology to society or the world,” the way you might be able to do if you started a company around the technology, Langer says.
Second, Langer needs to feel that the research really is a breakthrough. He usually judges that by the quality of the resulting publication. The third criterion is tied to the second: The intellectual property around the technology needs to be rock solid. At a minimum, the patent must allow the company freedom to operate, but even better from a venture capital perspective is a “blocking patent” that gives the company freedom to operate and excludes other companies from the area. Fourth, his lab and collaborators must have taken the technology a significant distance, with at least convincing data from animals.
Langer’s final criterion is that there must be someone in his lab who wants to start a company. “If there are students in the lab who have worked on something for five years and they really want to do a company and they’re passionate about it and it meets those other criteria, then absolutely we’d do it,” he explains.
He has also helped former students start companies long after they’ve left his lab. In 2009, Justin Hanes, a former Langer student who’s been a professor at Johns Hopkins University since 1998, asked Langer to help him start what became Kala Pharmaceuticals.
The mentoring he received as a graduate student in the Langer lab was key to his success, Hanes recalls. One of the technologies that Hanes worked on was the basis of Advanced Inhalation Research, which Langer started with David A. Edwards, a former postdoc who is now a professor at Harvard University. “Bob and David were very open with me about why they made certain decisions, and I learned a lot from the experience,” Hanes says. “What an incredible opportunity to have learned from them, so when I actually started a company, I wasn’t completely cutting my teeth.”
Langer is willing to share his expertise with friends other than his former students. Caltech’s Davis came to Langer for advice when he wanted to start his own companies. “I went to him immediately and asked for his help,” Davis says. “He served almost as a mentor to me when I started the first couple of companies.
“It was great to go to someone who’s been so successful at it,” Davis continues. “What’s so good about Bob is that he sees everything. In addition to the science and technology, he understands how to fit it into making it work as a commercial enterprise. It’s rare when you can get somebody who’s technically so sharp but also understands the nuances of trying to make one of these organizations run.”
With so many companies to his credit, Langer has gotten adept at recognizing what makes a good company. Terry G. McGuire, a partner at Polaris Ventures, has funded a number of Langer’s firms. McGuire remembers seeing Langer give a presentation about technology that McGuire thought would make a good basis for a company.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You know it’s really cool technology, but it’s just not ready to be commercialized,’ ” McGuire recalls. Langer believed that more research was needed before it would be ready. “Many other researchers would gladly say, ‘Sure, you want to give me money for an idea? I’ll take your money.’ ”
Langer has a simple reason for waiting. “If we’re going to do a company, I want to make sure it succeeds,” he says. “If you start something too early, it takes a tremendous amount of time and money and effort. I don’t want a company to fail, because everybody gets hurt in that process.”
McGuire has been impressed with Langer from the first time they met. “Bob clearly has a vision, and he clearly knows where he wants to go, but he’s very pragmatic about how you get there,” McGuire says. “From an investor’s perspective and a venture capitalist’s perspective that’s enormously important because no road is straight. There are always twists and turns on the way, and you want an academic founder to be pragmatic about those.”
Just as he does with his former students, Langer maintains relationships with his companies as close as they want him to. He likens the companies to children.
“Just like children growing up, some kids want a lot of your time and they want to do a lot of things with you. Others might want to do less and want less advice. Others might not want any at all,” he says. “From my standpoint as a parent, and the same with companies, I just want them to be happy.”
Some companies he’s been intimately involved with for years, serving on the board of directors. Others he helped get off the ground but is no longer involved with or serves just as a consultant. MIT’s rules about conflict of interest preclude Langer from taking on an executive role.
“When they get bigger, I feel like my own contributions are going to be less,” he says. “What I’m best at is dreaming up new ideas, making things happen in the beginning. Once a company has gotten to a certain success stage, I don’t know that I’m going to contribute the same as I would at earlier stages.”
Considering the size of Langer’s lab (somewhere north of 100 students, postdocs, and visiting scientists) and how many companies he works with, his level of involvement is amazing. His nearly legendary multitasking abilities and responsiveness help in that regard.
“He does spend quite a bit of time on any venture he works on,” Berry says. “But he’s also incredibly efficient about it as well.”
Langer founded MicroCHIPS near the middle of his long string of companies. He’s founded more than a dozen other firms since then. Even with so many sibling companies, there’s no discernible diminution of his attention, Santini says.
“You don’t notice it,” Santini recounts. “It’s not like he wasn’t involved in the beginning so you don’t notice it when it gets diluted. Quite the contrary. He’s involved in the beginning and he continues to remain involved.”
Langer shows no signs of slowing down. Recently, he added another entry to the growing list of organizations he’s started. Blend Therapeutics, cofounded with MIT chemistry professor Stephen J. Lippard and Harvard Medical School professor Omid C. Farokhzad, plans to use nanoparticle technology invented in Langer’s lab to deliver combination drugs.
And Langer’s partners can’t imagine him retiring. “People who are wired as entrepreneurs are wired as entrepreneurs,” Berry says. “If they retired at some point, they’d go home for a couple of months, drive their family crazy, and then realize they need the intellectual stimulation and the excitement and the pressure that come with it.”
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