Robert Langer doesn’t fit the standard definition of a serial entrepreneur — he has no formal business training and has spent the entirety of his 43-year career in academia. But Langer, widely considered the world’s top biomedical engineer, has spun out more commercial technologies and treatments from his lab than many biotech companies — including the first mechanism to deliver chemotherapy directly to a tumor, licensed by Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai Inc. Another recent creation snatched up from Langer's lab: an intra-vaginal ring that can release multiple drugs at different rates. Boston's Juniper Pharmaceuticals Inc. bought the licensing rights to the device earlier this year.
In between his many projects, Langer took time to chat with International Business Times in an empty lecture hall on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and share his advice about knowing when to launch a company and how to find the perfect chief executive.
Langer runs the largest biomedical laboratory in the world with an annual budget of more than $10 million at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From the lab, he has launched some 30 companies with students and collaborators and secured 1,100 patents which have been licensed to another 300 pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies. He has written over 1,300 scientific papers and is the most-cited engineer in the world. He is also one of only 11 Institute Professors at MIT, the university’s highest honor.
In recognition of his work, Langer has won virtually every major engineering and technology prize in the world. President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the country’s top honor for scientists in 2013. This year, Langer added the prestigious $1.5 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to the list. The prize committee estimated that he has improved at least two billion lives through his discoveries.
But crafting acceptance speeches for all those accolades hasn’t slowed him down. Right now, he’s trying to convert drugs that must be taken daily into long-acting forms that release medicine over several weeks or years. One of his prototypes is a star-shaped object housed in a dissolvable capsule. When a patient swallows it, the capsule dissolves and the prototype expands in the stomach. Its odd shape can’t fit through the digestive track, so the device stays there and releases medicine slowly over time.
This type of drug delivery is particularly useful to patients in developing countries with limited access to medicine. That’s why Bill Gates once asked Langer to invent an implant that would provide a steady release of birth control and permit her to switch the doses on or off. A startup called MicroChips that spawned from Langer’s lab plans to debut such a device in 2018.
Still, Langer's quest to invent groundbreaking medical devices and treatments hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. His first nine research grant proposals were rejected. While speaking to a gathering on MIT’s campus on Sunday, he spoke of depression while struggling to find an academic position as a young engineer in the 1970s who wished to stay out of the oil industry and work on medical questions instead, and strife with senior researchers in the field who thought his early ideas were foolish.
Langer spoke with IBTimes about how he knows when it’s time to start a business, how he chooses students for his lab and where he thinks most professors and entrepreneurs falter when commercializing new discoveries. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
International Business Times: How do you know when it’s time to launch a new company for one of your projects?
Robert Langer: Before I start a company, I want it to be reasonably advanced. I want to feel like we have a shot at it. We’ve advanced it to a good solid paper or papers. We probably have animal data that proves the concept. We have a patent. And usually if it’s going to be a company, it’s a platform technology that you can use for lots of things.
IBT: What does an MIT student have to do to earn a spot in your lab?
Langer: We get about 5,000 applicants a year, so it’s hard. I look for superstars. How do I know? I kind of rely heavily on what people I know tell me. If people at Harvard or Stanford say, this is the best person, I listen to that.
IBT: Out of those 5,000 applicants, how many students do you accept into your lab each year?
Langer: Five to 10.
IBT: One of your specialties is launching biotech companies with students in your lab. Have you seen any shift in the percentage of students who are interested in pursuing academic careers versus those who want to become entrepreneurs?
Langer: We get an enormous amount of both. Thirty years ago, nobody would have thought about launching a company. Now, people come and they are interested in that. But I still don’t think that’s the majority.
IBT: As a biotech veteran, does the growing pushback against the high price of medicines concern you?
Langer: I totally understand the issue on price but when price controls come up, it has a chilling effect on what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to get out into the world. It’s hard to get investors. They could invest in the internet or Uber. Why should they invest in us? I’d rather see (investments) go to medicine.
I think long term it will probably be fine but in the short term, it’s not good because at all the companies, as well as our labs — you’re always trying to raise money. In some places, you can raise money on sales. Here, you’re raising money on hopes that often can be fulfilled but unless you get the money, you have no chance to do it. It’s not like these things are easy to do.
IBT: After winning the Queen’s Prize and so many other awards, do you still have trouble finding funding for your research?
Langer: I’d still say the answer is yes. I still get grants turned down. I think everybody does. I’ve been fortunate that different foundations have come to me — the Gates Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. They’ve come to us partly because we’ve been able to create things that help people.
IBT: You’ve had tremendous success in commercializing discoveries and launching prototypes from the lab that become incorporated into new therapies. What do you think are some of the most common mistakes that other professors and biotech entrepreneurs make when they try to do this?
Langer: I think one is starting too early. I do feel like in the medical area, it’s easy to fail. There’s so much money and it takes so much time. The second reason is it’s not necessarily working with the right people. There’s going to be some investors who are just better than others. The third — and this is the hardest — is finding the right CEO. When people ask me why some companies have done better than others, the number one reason is the CEO. I actually don’t begrudge CEOs for getting so much money, even millions of dollars. They’re worth it. For me, it has been the single biggest differentiator.
IBT: What do you look for in a CEO?
Langer: They’re smart people and are able to pick things up in different ways. I guess I want to make sure I like them. I want to make sure they’re driven. I would like them to be charismatic. To me, there’s almost the optimization issue of selling — you don’t want to over promise because that’s bad and you don’t want to under promise either. You want to get across the vision that your company could change the world and you have to believe that.