Dr. Robert Langer. Photocredit: Langer Lab, MIT Department of Chemical Engineering

Biotech Advances by Finding Talent Who Can Walk through Walls

As one of the most accomplished engineers in history, Robert Langer has spent most of his career in ­biotech – spinning companies out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This past November,
he joined the Scientific Advisory Board of BioInnovation Institute.

Throughout his distinguished career, Dr. Robert Langer has faced a lot of ‘no’s’. As a chemical engineer who was eager to work on drug delivery systems, his ideas cut against the grain of conventional wisdom:

“It was tough. As a newly-minted chemical engineer, people wrote insulting things about my knowledge of biology and medicine. Many critics thought my ideas were crazy, a number of professors even wanted me to leave the university, and my first nine grant proposals were turned down.”

Despite his rough start as a chemical engineer, Langer kept his sights set on transitioning into medical research. Steadfast, he eventually landed a job as a postdoctoral fellow with the cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. Folkman became a role model and a mentor who embodied the values and drive that Langer now looks for in talented researchers and business people.

Over time, Langer’s research that combined synthetic polymers and mammalian cells led to the creation of FDA-approved artificial skin, new blood vessels, and spinal cords. Currently, he’s running clinical trials to use these innovations to treat hearing loss.

You just have to keep trying and ­never give up. This is based, in part, on personality, but it also requires ­believing in what you are building and creating
Dr. Robert Langer

Along the way, Langer’s entrepreneurial mind-set and unshakeable confidence helped him to become a rock star in the field of biotech, who is frequently referred to as the ‘Edison of our time’. As a serial entrepreneur, he holds over 1,000 patents, has published over 1,000 articles, and is affiliated with numerous university spinouts that benefit from the depth and breadth of his expertise.

This past November, the star researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accepted to chair a group of scientific experts who will advise Novo Nordisk Fonden’s biotech incubator, Bioinnovation Institute.

Learning to deal with failure

Every entrepreneur is told that failure is necessary on the road to success. This mantra is alive and well throughout American entrepreneurial ecosystems in Silicon Valley and MIT alike. According to Langer:

“The people who are most successful doing research are the ones who know how to deal well with failure. It’s ok to fail, if you are able to turn it into a real opportunity to do something different, or can make the necessary adjustments. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement to encourage people that almost anything is possible. This, of course, is easier if you do something that you love and are truly passionate about.”

Photocredit: Langer Lab, MIT Department of Chemical Engineering

Failure can also push entrepreneurs out of their comfort zones, stretching towards what is possible. It’s about exploring all sorts of avenues for solutions and doing so in a very rigorous, disciplined way. But it can be a gruelling process.

In an interview with Forbes, Langer spoke to how he guides others to a point where they’re asking good questions – whether in science or in business.

Be bold

An ecosystem requires that several conditions be present for something to take root and grow. This applies outside of the natural sciences, especially to start-ups and entrepreneurs who are making businesses out of great research. However, the reality is that researchers-turned-entrepreneurs are still frowned upon, and this only causes barriers for impact:

“Looking at the two most attractive ecosystems for research in the United States – the areas adjacent to MIT and Stanford – they have engineering and entrepreneurial cultures in the fields of computer technology and biotechnology. They celebrate and embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. At some universities, academia and business are too far apart, when the two are actually interdependent and often require close collaboration to find real value,” Langer remarks.

The optimal conditions for a successful entrepreneurial environment include: university environments that can provide trainees with the right skills; access to risk capital; the opportunity to interact with legal advisors who have insight into patent law; and collaborations with established companies that can either dedicate employees to specific entrepreneurial projects or acquire successful start-ups. These conditions give rise to a rich ecosystem that can help life sciences start-ups to develop and ship their products to the market.

Another key stakeholder is the government. As Langer sees it, the Danish government should look more closely at providing funding to universities because very often entrepreneurship and innovation starts at the university level, and better funding can attract superstar faculty and junior scientists to the country.

“You have to be ambitious – not about money for lucrative salaries – but with funding for facilities and resources for professors and researchers. They want to work in places where they can carry out their research under the most optimal conditions available. And if that is in Denmark, they will no doubt come here,” Langer explains.

Drawing a recent parallel to MIT, he points out that the university wants to establish the world’s best research centre for artificial intelligence and is looking to hire 50 of the best professors in the field. Such bold moves can only come with significant funding.

Companies are like children growing up

Since the 1980s, MIT’s Langer Lab has spun out companies whose products treat cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, and even thicken hair. He also serves as a board member for several of his companies and devotes a lot of his time to mentoring. Based on his observations over many years, Langer describes companies as children when they are growing up. When they are babies, they need a lot of nurturing. Later on, they need less. And, in the end, they may not even listen to you, but at least you hope they will love you.

In seeking out individuals to run his companies, Langer looks at those who are the best overall as opposed to specialists: “I rely heavily on advisors. If they say that this person is the best, that he or she would walk through walls to accomplish things and is a nice person, I work with them. I have been lucky in choosing people, and MIT has been a good environment for them to flourish.”

That being said, it is more challenging to recruit CEOs for his companies:

‘Many people are not going to be a great CEO no matter what, and those who are great will only be so at a certain time in their life. If you get someone too early, they may make mistakes because they do not have the experience. And if you get them too late in their life, they might not have the fire in their belly. So somehow you have to be fortunate enough to judge people as you find them and that is awfully hard’.

Although Langer is quick to point out that there is no one type of personality that is most suited for success, he emphasised the importance of vision, hard work, never letting up, and – especially in the world of biotech – patience:

‘You just have to keep trying and never give up. This is based, in part, on personality, but it also requires believing in what you are building and creating. That is what I mean when I say that people can walk through walls: someone who can create something that is almost unbelievable’.­

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The Edison of our time

Robert Langer holds over 1,000 patents; has ­published over 1,000 articles; oversees a lab at MIT that has served as an incubator for 40 companies; and he is the most quoted engineer in history.

He has received 220 awards, including the United States National Medal of Science and the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Charles Stark Draper Prize (considered the Nobel Prize in engineering), the Albany Medical Center Prize, the Wolf Prize for Chemistry, the Millennium Technology Prize, the Priestley Medal (highest award of the American Chemical Society), the Gairdner Prize, and the Lemelson-MIT prize, for being ‘one of history’s most prolific inventors in medicine’. He holds 34 honourary doctorates and is one of the very few individuals ever elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors.

The Langer Lab at MIT is the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world, and maintains over $10 ­million in annual grants and houses over 100 ­researchers.