The Langer Lab: How An Egghead Lays Golden Eggs

By Shlomo Maital       

       Bob Langer

  Today’s Global New York Times (Nov. 26, p. 19) carries an article by Hannah Seligson, “Shepherding innovation from a university lab to the patient”, about MIT Institute Prof. Bob Langer and his incredible lab.  According to Seligson, Langer’s incredible lab ” has spun out companies whose products treat cancer, diabetes, heart disease and schizophrenia, among other diseases, and even thicken hair.  The Langer Lab is on the front lines of turning discoveries made in the lab into a range of drugs and drug delivery systems.”  Langer’s pathbreaking lab discovered new ways for drug delivery, helping millions of sick people.

   Langer has helped start 25 companies and has 811 patents under his name. More than 250 companies have licensed or sublicensed Langer patents. 

    Polaris Venture Partners, a Boston VC firm, invested $220 m. in 18 businesses that came out of the Langer Lab. 

    We need to study Bob Langer’s Lab very very closely. The reason?  What we call “technology transfer”, the process of transferring basic research done in universities to the marketplace, is misnamed.  What it really is, is a perilous journey across the ‘valley of death’, where there is a lack of money, management expertise, marketing channels…everything professors do NOT understand, to create a business.  And few professors are good at it.  Bob clearly is.  We should try to learn how and why. 

    Here are some of the inventions that have come out of the Langer Lab: 

    • A tiny wafer that delivers a dose of chemotherapy, used to treat brain cancer;
    • A miniaturized chip that can test for diseases. 
    • A controlled-release polio vaccine, developed in the Langer Lab, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for use in developing countries.
    • A method for regenerating tissue, used on wounded soldiers.

    What is it about Bob Langer that gets so many of his lab’s ideas across the ‘valley of death’?   “Very often, when you are going for real innovation”, Langer told the NYT, “you have to go against prevailing wisdom, and it’s hard to go against prevailing wisdom when there are people who have been there for a long time and you have some vice president who says, “no, that doesn’t make sense”. “   Langer puts no pressure on his students to start businesses. Half of them become academics.  But those who want to start businesses based on their lab discoveries get active assistance, advice, mentoring and help in raising money from Langer.

       I know a small number of scientists who resemble Langer, at my university, Technion. They are rare birds indeed. They are dedicated bench scientists, with a deep desire and ability to find ways to implement their discoveries, to change the world.  They find students who can and will do so.   I try to write about them and tell their stories, so that more professors might emulate them.