Professor Robert Langer, the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo keynote speaker in Boston, shares the challenges he faced when becoming an academic entrepreneur.
Contributor Diana Cai
Robert Langer began by telling the audience about how, upon receiving his graduate degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1974, he had job offers from 20 oil companies. “It’s not like I was that great or anything,” Langer says. He goes on to explain that the previous year had ended on a bad note for the oil market: the price of oil quadrupled in the span of four months, from $2.67 a barrel in October 1973 to $11.65 a barrel in January 1974. As a result, job opportunities for chemical engineers skyrocketed. He was ready to follow this path, until one of the engineers at a company said to him, “If you could just increase the yield of this one chemical by 0.1%, that would be wonderful!” Feeling uninspired and unable to contribute to society in that line of work, Langer decided to look for other options.
After applying to teaching positions at more than 40 colleges and failing to hear back from any of them, he asked himself, “How else can I use my chemical engineering education to help people? And I thought about medicine.” Langer eventually entered the laboratory of Judah Folkman, a professor at Harvard Medical School. Folkman was interested in angiogenesis, the process by which new blood vessels are formed. He had found that tumour growth is dependent on angiogenesis and postulated that inhibiting angiogenesis might be a way to halt tumour growth.
Now inspired, Langer looked for potential inhibitors of angiogenesis in cartilage, which contains no blood vessels. He isolated the first angiogenesis inhibitor, a macromolecule, and after unsuccessfully testing hundreds of different methods, he eventually developed microspheres that could release the molecule into tissue at a relatively constant rate over months.
Langer delivered his results at a conference with other chemical engineers, but was greeted with fierce criticism. They believed it was impossible for large molecules to diffuse through the polymers of the microsphere. Furthermore, when he was searching for faculty positions, “No chemical engineering department would actually hire me,” Langer said. “They said the stuff that I was thinking about…was too much like this biology stuff.”
In time, after a position within a nutrition department and unsuccessful attempts at funding, other scientists were able to replicate his results. His prospects within the scientific community also improved. Based on Langer and Folkman’s work, numerous angiogenesis inhibitors have since been developed, benefiting people worldwide.
Langer later worked on other projects, from developing a novel method of drug delivery for glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain cancer, to engineering tissues for use in patients with severe injuries or birth defects.
Like his path in academia, Langer’s rise to serial entrepreneurship was paved with challenges. When he filed his first patent for the delivery system he developed in Folkman’s lab, the patent examiners, unsure of the science, refused to issue a patent, even after repeated applications. In fact, as Langer recalls, “the lawyer for the hospital said, ‘Bob, you are wasting the hospital so much money. The guy is never going to allow it.’” Langer, refusing to give up, found articles describing the novelty of delivery system to submit to the patent examiners. Six years after Langer first applied, they finally issued the patent.
“Today, there’s all kinds of products based on this,” Langer says. “Different peptides that might treat cancer, that might treat type 2 diabetes….many of these have become multi-billion dollar drugs.”
Langer has now co-founded more than 25 companies. His entrepreneurial attitude, he notes, comes from a desire to generate additional funds for research as well to see products from his lab make a difference in society.
Following his talk, Langer took questions from the audience. One person, remarking on the failures Langer has faced, asked, “what point do you think is a point to say stop?” In response, Langer advised audience members to reflect on the scientific merit of the ideas that generate skepticism. “I try to listen carefully to whatever criticisms there are,” Langer said and noted that, sometimes, it isn’t that the idea itself that is flawed, but perhaps how it is communicated. Learning from failures and listening to criticism from others, he asserted, is important to improving communication.
Langer later told Naturejobs that although he is known as an academic entrepreneur, he doesn’t actively encourage individuals in his lab to go into academia or entrepreneurship. Instead, he encourages people to have the best experience possible by following their dreams and seeing where it might lead them.