Do you know the “Edison of Medicine”?

Back to a topic on innovation and what better place to look than at medicine. Yes, there are experts in the field that are pushing the boundaries. One of them is Robert Langer, a pioneer in multidisciplinary science. His natural curiosity and intuition to combine chemical engineering and medicine was faced with much rejection, but his persistence has made him “one of history’s most prolific inventors in history”. As a young boy growing up in Albany, New York, Robert was fascinated with the magic of chemistry and spent countless hours mixing chemicals to change colors or cause reactions. Jump ahead 10 years, and after obtaining a Doctor of Science in Chemical Engineering, he started applying to hospitals and medical schools to see if they could use a chemical engineer and ended up in a surgical lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Today, he is the David H. Koch Institute Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at MIT (being an Institute Professor is the highest honor that can be awarded to a faculty member). Langer Laboratory at MIT, with over 100 students, postdocs and visiting scientists at any one time, and maintaining over $10 million in annual grants, is the world’s largest academic biomedical engineering laboratory

Academic, corporate, and government labs—indeed, anyone leading a group of highly talented people from disparate fields—could learn much from Langer’s model. He has a five-pronged approach to accelerating the pace of discoveries and ensuring that they make it out of academia and into the real world as products. It includes a focus on high-impact ideas, a process for crossing the proverbial “valley of death” between research and commercial development, methods for facilitating multidisciplinary collaboration, ways to make the constant turnover of researchers and the limited duration of project funding a plus, and a leadership style that balances freedom and support.

Langer’s achievements are remarkable on several counts. His h-index score, a measure of the number of a scholar’s published papers and how often they have been cited, is 230—the highest of any engineer ever. His more than 1,100 current and pending patents have been licensed or sublicensed to some 300 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, and medical device companies, earning him the nickname “the Edison of medicine.” Alone or in collaboration, his lab has given rise to 40 companies, all but one of which are still in existence, either as independent entities or as part of acquiring companies. Collectively, they have an estimated market value of more than $23 billion—excluding Living Proof, a hair products company that Unilever is acquiring for an undisclosed sum.

The multidisciplinary approach is still a work in progress in academia, but it has been gathering steam there over the past decade or so, reflecting universities’ growing interest in tackling real-world problems and spawning new businesses and a recognition that doing so often takes diverse expertise. Although it has long been common in the business world, companies too could improve their results by applying elements of Langer’s research-to-product process, thereby creating brand-new offerings and refreshing or reinventing their businesses again and again.

One of Langer’s mantras when choosing projects is: Consider the potential impact on society, not the money. The idea is that if you create something that makes a major difference, the customers and the money will come. It’s a profound departure from the approach of many big companies: If an idea for a product is so radically new that discounted cash flow can’t be calculated, they often won’t pursue it, or they give up when the research hits an obstacle—as ambitious research almost always does.

A second criterion for project selection is fit with the lab’s core areas: drug delivery, drug development, tissue engineering, and biomaterials. Third, he asks whether it’s realistic to believe that the medical and scientific challenges can be met by applying or expanding existing science, either at his lab alone or in collaboration with others.

Choosing the right projects to pursue is just the first step, of course; the path to realization can be long and treacherous. Langer has a formula for getting discoveries through the valley of death separating early-stage research and commercial development. Many corporate and academic labs look to solve specific problems without necessarily thinking beyond them. Langer Lab takes a broader view. In addition to creating a wider market, this strategy allows companies to pursue unanticipated applications, says Terry McGuire, a founding partner of Polaris.

Although the lab’s researchers often have a use in mind, sometimes they envision a variety of applications. For example, Langer got the idea for an implantable microchip that could release drugs for years and could be controlled outside the body while watching a television show on semiconductors; he imagined that chips could not only be used to deliver drugs but also put into TVs to release scents that would enhance the viewing experience.

MIT has been a pioneer in patenting and licensing academic discoveries. But Langer has been exceptional in his pursuit of especially strong patents. His goal is to limit, sometimes even block, others from claiming rights to the territory so that companies will be willing to expend the money needed to commercialize a discovery—an investment that must typically cover expensive clinical trials and that greatly exceeds the cost of the research.

Appearing in a journal such as Nature or Science validates—and advertises—the soundness and importance of the discovery not just to other academics but also to potential business investors. Prove the concept in animal studies, and don’t push the discovery out of the lab too quickly. The reason is twofold: to boost the odds that the discovery will work and to minimize the chances that commercialization efforts will flounder—a common occurrence in universities and even the corporate world.

MIT awards inventors one-third of royalty income after expenses and fees. (The rest goes to the researchers’ departments or centers, MIT’s technology-licensing office, and the university’s general fund.) In recent decades a growing number of universities have instituted similar policies, but the approach is still highly unusual in the corporate world.

A final “product” of the lab is people: Scores of the roughly 900 researchers who have earned graduate degrees or worked as postdocs at the lab have gone on to distinguished careers in academia, business, and venture capital. Fourteen have been inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, 12 into the National Academy of Medicine. Like all academic labs, Langer’s sees a constant flow of people joining or leaving. Doctoral students typically stay four or five years, postdocs two or three, and undergraduates participate for as little as a semester and as much as four years. Newcomers are perpetually being trained, and people may leave at the peak of their productivity. But Langer and many colleagues think the turnover has positives that vastly outweigh these downsides. Problems are viewed with fresh eyes—he calls it “constant stimulation.” The turnover is fairly predictable and tied to the length of projects; even huge grants are structured so that the lab can gradually scale up. The finite tenure of most of the researchers, combined with the limited duration of grants (typically three to five years, with renewals dependent on meeting goals), imposes pressure to get results.

A highly motivated superstar team with limited tenure; an accomplished scientist leader; time-limited projects; intense pressure to get results—it all sounds like the DARPA formula, proof that the model has application far beyond academic settings.

Langer also goes out of his way to help people leaving his lab get good jobs, and he stays in touch with hundreds of alumni, providing assistance if needed. He is deeply connected to those in his network. For instance, he refers to many of the venture capitalists who have financed his start-ups—a group including Terry McGuire, of Polaris; Noubar Afeyan, of Flagship; and Mark Levin, of Third Rock—as friends, and means it. (Langer, McGuire, and their two daughters vacationed together last year in Bordeaux, and Langer’s daughter was in the wedding of McGuire’s.)

The investment in his network pays valuable dividends in the form of productive research collaborations, referrals of extraordinary students to his lab, and manpower for the start-ups. Langer not only paves the way for lab members to launch start-ups but also taps his network if a need at one emerges down the road.

When people who have worked with Bob Langer talk about him, one hears a common refrain: he is an integral part of his research-to-product model and a brilliant individual who can’t be replicated. But this doesn’t mean that his model, including his “Mr. Nice Guy” leadership style, can’t be replicated. What if corporations structured their labs like his? What if they nurtured deep expertise in a handful of areas so that customers would come to them with their most pressing problems? What if they enticed superstar researchers by offering opportunities to work on issues that could change the world?

Check out my related post: How can we increase partnerships?

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