Professor Bob Langer sprints through his opening keynote speech at ASAP's 2014 BioPharma Conference like Usain Bolt at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Considering the pace at which Langer racks up accomplishments, this is really no surprise.
Using examples from his career, the "Godfather of biotech," as one audience member later describes him, elucidates the goals he strives to reach in his MIT lab. Working with current and former students, Langer develops platform technologies that can be used broadly by numerous product companies, including companies he established. Publishing seminal papers in top journals helps spread the message about his work, and filing seminal patents help Langer protect his work and establish his legacy.
If this all sounds like a lot, that's because it is. With over 1050 patents and 250+ licenses or sub-licenses, it's entirely possible the man never sleeps. Despite his tremendous and groundbreaking accomplishments, Langer appears humble. He reputedly responds to emails within an hour - not just from folks at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with whom he works (FYI, he works directly with the foundation's namesakes, as illustrated in a photo slide). Nor does he save his speedy responses solely for stars like Jennifer Aniston (spokesmodel for the haircare line he formulated with professor Dan Anderson, for their company Living Proof)... In fact, Langer responds to ALL email within an hour - from students, prospective students, and yes, from the Managing Editor of a humble professional publication called Strategic Alliance Magazine. We conducted our first interview via email and voicemail. I sent the questions via email. He responded by voicemail, in a series of rapid-fire messages addressing each and every question and offering further assistance if needed. It wasn't; he's articulate, even at high speed.
Scientists have the reputation for being obtuse, for communicating only in the language of their specialty, for being unaware when an outsider is missing the salient points. Langer has come a long way. His first speech in 8th grade went so badly he avoided public speaking for over a decade until he was forced to present his post-doctoral research in a twenty-minute speech to senior scientists who roundly rejected the work as impossible. Today, he speaks with refreshing eloquence.
Perhaps this is why he also manages to establish flourishing alliances. Or perhaps, as Langer suggests, his alliances thrive largely because of the champions at each partner organization who either officially or unofficially manage the alliance.
As the chemical engineer/professor/inventor/entrepreneur whizzes through 70-plus slides and two short videos showcasing his work, I feel like I'm on a bullet train watching billboards flash by my window. It's mesmerizing, but I tear my gaze away to scan the room. Familiar faces—Lena Frank, CSAP, Steve Twait, CSAP, Dave Thompson, CA-AM, Jeremy Ahouse, CSAP, PhD —gaze upon the presenter with similar rapture.
If there's one theme in Langer's work, other than the desire to save or enhance lives via science, it's that he has managed to plow through challenges others believed were insurmountable. "People believed it couldn't be done," he says more than once.
The results? A microchip with wells of drugs for implantation; porous aerosol delivery of drugs; glycoforms with better specificity, biological efficacy, half-life, stability, absorption and elimination time; and nano-particles used to zap breast and lung tumors, have earned Langer Lab, or one of the numerous companies Langer has established, deals with pharma players including Amgen, Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Hoffman LaRoche and Sanofi. I guess you could say he's been modestly successful.
When the presentation ends, the conference planning committee chair, Jan Twombly, CSAP, rises and invites the audience to ask questions. We sit in stunned silence.
"None?" Twombly asks sheepishly.
Finally, a voice rises from the back of the room: "How, specifically, do you collaborate?"
Langer explains, "Our lab is interdisciplinary. My goal is to have people make an idea factory, where we can invent stuff, write great papers and make great patents. If we go the next step, usually, companies think it's too early to collaborate with us at that stage. Sanofi is an exception."
Now, the god-like scientist exposes his Achilles heel - the fear that if his main contact at Sanofi is ever transferred out of Boston, their collaborations may not be as good. "It's a skillset," he says. "A new person comes in, and... I think it's hard to do. There's always people interacting back and forth. Sometimes, we hire somebody just to do the management of an alliance."
We, the audience, take in the "godfather of biotech's" last admission, again in complete silence.
"I think you have wowed the audience," Twombly states.
"I don't know," Langer replies modestly. "I think they're probably hungry."