An abiding belief that “there has to be a better way” is essential to both effective collaboration and breakthrough innovation. Few people demonstrate this truism more than Robert Langer—a prolific cross-disciplinary inventor who is one of only seven individuals to receive the United States’ National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Langer, head of Langer Labs and institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—kicked off the 2014 ASAP BioPharma Conference in Boston with a special opening keynote on Wednesday evening, Sept. 3.
Langer’s lively, frequently humerous talk to a jam-packed room was jam-packed with detailed case studies of how he and his students and colleagues consistently develop novel approaches that in turn create breakthrough inventions that are then successfully commercialized through partnership. He opened his talk by emphasizing the threads that run through all of the successes he’s been a part of.
“We’ve done it 25 to 30 times, and all of the companies we’ve started are still around in some form or another,” he noted, citing a several common themes:
- Langer Labs and its predecessors generally focus around platform technologies—e.g. genetic engineering—that lend themselves to broadly applicable patents and support the launch of product companies. Inventions should have seminal (ideally blocking) patent(s), according to Langer. “Sometimes people say that’s not so nice—but it encourages greater investment,” he said.
- The innovation should be published in top journal, e.g. Science or Nature, where peers have the opportunity to test and validate your breakthrough. Moreover, you need in vivo proof of principle. “In medicine, these things take a long time to do, but you have venture investors who aren’t impressed with something just in test tubes.”
- All of Langer’s work has been done with current or former students. “My students and post docs often spend five to six years in the lab and want to do something to help the world. I’ve also noticed something else—champions are so important to licensing deals. “We’ve licensed things, we have a great champion, they get promoted, then we don’t have the same spirit with the new person. But our students will walk through walls to make their stuff work.”
Langer began with the beginning of his career—when he first explored alternative approaches that tackled challenges that others insisted couldn’t be overcome.
“When I got started, I was a post doc at Children’s Hospital and we were looking for molecules to stop blood vessels from growing. Bioassays are critical to doing that. We needed a way to study and the only assays we could come up with took two to three months.” He focused on how to utilize large molecules that “you can’t take by mouth, can’t take with transdermal patch, and when you inject them, the half-lives are often very short. So we wanted to put this in a control release polymer (this was in 1974) and at the time the literature said you can’t do it—a large molecule cannot slowly diffuse through solid polymers. The only thing I had going for me was I didn’t know any of this, and I experimented for two years and found over 200 ways that didn’t work,” he said, garnering enthusiastic laughter. “But eventually we showed that you could release molecules of any size over 120 days, then established continuous steady release.”
Langer then got his first big break. “There was a big polymer center in Midland, Michigan [USA]. I had to give my first speech since 8th grade, when I forgot my speech and I think I got an F. (After that I avoided public speaking with a passion.) So in the Midland talk in 1976, I practiced for two weeks – this time I did better, didn’t stammer, and thought these older scientists were really nice and would want to encourage me. Instead they came up after the talk and said, ‘We don’t believe anything you said. Organic solvents would destroy the substance and degrade the peptides,’ and so on. But then it began to get replicated in labs. We discovered that we were creating these very tight pores. Tortuosity was high for these pores, and we learned how to control that tortuosity to control releases. For example, we figured out how to lower blood sugar with a tiny implant.”
Then Langer hit his next roadblock. “We decided to file a patent, and the examiner turned it down every year from 1976 to 1981. Finally the lawyer for the hospital said, ‘Bob, you should just give up, this is costing us too much money.’ I started to think, ‘How can we (legally, of course) convince this examiner. You can do something called science citation search, so you can see what people said about our article from 1976.” For instance, Langer discovered a 1979 paper where researchers tested the assumption that large molecules couldn’t suffuse through the polymer—and they reported “surprising results that clearly demonstrate the opposite.” The ultimate outcome: licensing deals, including with Eli Lilly and Co., based on Folkman and Langer Patent 4,391,797.
We’ll share more of Langer’s stories—some well-known folks, including billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and actor Jennifer Aniston, make appearances—in future blog coverage of the ASAP BioPharma Conference.