Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Paying it Forward – MIT Series Taps Serial Entrepreneur Scientists for Lessons on Commercialization

As one of today’s most accomplished scientist-entrepreneurs, it is hard to believe that Dr. Robert (Bob) Langer nearly missed getting his start in academia altogether. It’s the type of story line that could be easily discarded as a piece of academic folklore, unless you were to hear it directly from the man himself. This type of candid disclosure from experienced entrepreneurs is exactly the goal driving the MIT Fireside Chat Series on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Scientific Commercialization.”

This series is the brainchild of Isaac Stoner, a current MBA student at MIT Sloan, Health Care Sector Practice Leader at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and trained biomedical engineer. The idea came to him as a result of his participation in a Harvard Business School course on “Commercializing Science”, run by former Vertex President Vicki Sato (covered here by STAT), which delved into “the decisions and strategies that make large and small organizations effective at innovating in life science.” It seemed a natural progression for him then, to create a forum in which expert scientist-commercializers can share insights earned from experience.

For these discussions to bear fruit, they hinge heavily on having compelling questions from the audience and a comfortable, informal setting. It is designed to be like an engaging conversation between two friends in their living room, except in this case, the living room happens to be the main amphitheater at the Broad Institute, packed with onlookers hungry for tips. Bill Aulet, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, experienced founder, and MIT Trust Center Managing Director, serves as the armchair moderator, and according to Isaac, “has a way of getting people talking” during these informal chats.

Here is a recap of a very animated fireside chat with Bob Langer. (Setting the scene: a digitally projected fireplace flickers in the background):

  • DO – Take Risks in Tirelessly Pursuing Your Passion – In his words, "pursue what makes you happy." For Dr. Langer, that starts with basic science discovery. In a 2012 New York Times articleH. Kent Bowen, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School, who authored a 2004 case study on the Langer Lab, divulges that “Bob is not consumed with any one company. His mission is to create the idea,” which can serve as fodder for industry to further develop into life-saving therapies. Dr. Langer remarked during his talk that fairly early on in his career he recognized the value of startup companies compared to large companies – to a large company, his licensed technology may be just one of many in their development portfolio, while the startup might be focused solely on making that one technology work. After receiving his doctorate in chemical engineering, Dr. Langer turned down some twenty job offers from oil companies, whose missions weren’t of much interest to him, to pursue his academic and clinical passions.

  • DO – Celebrate & Encourage Teamwork – For a man that has over a thousand patents and a thousand publications to his name, his greatest accomplishment of all might be the assemblage of the world’s largest biomedical laboratory. Over the years, to effectively shepherd new biomedical technologies across commercialization’s infamous “Valley of Death” between early-stage development and potential patient benefit – a stretch of road where so many technologies fail – he’s relied on a cadre of industry partners, academic colleagues and apprentices. He estimates that he’s had over 270 lab members to date, between the post-docs and students who come to him for training in today’s cutting edge bioengineering technology and techniques. His trust in the process and in other people to carry forward his vision has served to multiply his downstream impact: it’s estimated that he’s touched over two billion lives through medical innovations that have their roots in his lab.

  • DO - Effectively Manage Time – Dr. Langer, to his credit, somehow manages to balance all of his competing responsibilities – between his research, industry advising, teaching and mentoring. Along with his illustrious track record of scientific impact, he has amassed an equally notable reputation for always being available, as he responds to outreach from students and colleagues alike with lightning speed at all hours of the day. Could his greatest triumph be tapping into a previously unknown 25th hour in the day? The same New York Times article (2012) on the Langer Lab sheds some light on his daily planner, stating that “he spends about eight hours a week working on companies that come out of his lab. Of the 25 that he helped start, he serves on the boards of 12 and is an informal adviser to 4.”

  • DO – Seek Guidance & Mentorship (*Apprenticeship) – As Dr. Langer recounted, Dr. Judah Folkman, a renowned surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital and member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School, through his sheer persistence, showed anything is possible. He served as an inspiration to those getting their start in his lab, like Langer, who would later model themselves and their careers after him. *A topic for a future blog post!

Dr. Langer seemed to have an impeccable ability for seeing the bright side of things – though he turned out to be a human treasure trove of interesting pieces of science history! So in place of “Commercialization Don’ts”, we’ll instead have an installment of ‘FUN FACTS’:
  • In 1975, at the time Bob Langer was getting his start in academia, Dr. Judah Folkman, then at Harvard, had just inked a record $23M industrial grant from Monsanto to support his cancer research. In the wake of Dr. Folkman’s historic commercial deal, the tides of academic-industry R&D collaborations began to change.
  • In 1980, The Bayh-Dole Act opened the floodgates for academic innovators and institutions to take ownership in the form of patents over intellectual property developed with the support of government funds. The patented technology could then be licensed to industry to be commercialized, ushering in a new age of innovation.

Next up in the MIT Fireside Chat Series on Commercializing Science:

James Collins, PhD, Termeer Professor of Bioengineering at MIT, Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute, and Member of the Broad Institute – “Founder of the field of synthetic biology and a pioneer in systems biology.”

Date/Time: Friday, February 26, 2016, 12-1PM. REGISTER!

Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 45 Carleton Street, Building E25-111, Cambridge, MA 02142. (MIT campus map)

Event Description: “Dr. Collins will address questions around his experience in turning scientific discoveries into real biomedical impact, including the founding of Synlogic, Sample6, and EnBiotix. Event will be moderated by Bill Aulet. Please Tweet questions to @billaulet ahead of the event.”