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President Aoun and inventor Robert Langer talk innovation

President Joseph E. Aoun on Wednesday afternoon sat down with Robert Langer—inventor, entrepreneur, and engineer extraordinaire—to discuss Langer’s awe-inspiring ability to harness the power of science and engineering to develop drug delivery systems and life-saving technologies.

His talk—titled “Biomaterials and How They Will Change Our Lives”—marked the latest installment of Northeastern’s Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series, which is hosted by President Joseph E. Aoun and brings the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Here are three takeaways from the event, which was part of the College of Engineering’s Chemical Engineering Day and National Engineering Week activities.

If at first you don’t succeed…
Langer—the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world—noted that his illustrious career got off to a slow start. After earning his doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT in 1974, he spent a considerable amount of time looking for jobs that could make an impact and help people. He wrote letters to 40 colleges, inquiring about the prospect of becoming an assistant professor of chemistry, but none wrote back. Then he wrote a score of letters to hospitals and medical schools, but—you guessed it—none wrote back. Finally, he connected with Judah Folkman, a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital with a revolutionary idea: If you could stop blood vessels, he posited, maybe you could stop cancer. In short order, Langer and Folkman started working toward a solution and eventually isolated the first angiogenesis inhibitors, which are now used to effectively treat cancer and macular degeneration.

A decade following the initial discovery, Langer founded a startup based on these microparticles. Since then, he’s launched two-dozen more startups, making an eclectic variety of things from tumor-finding nanoparticles to synthetic spinal cords, and won more than 220 major awards, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the National Medal of Science. What’s more, he holds more than 1,000 patents worldwide, which have been licensed or sub-licensed to some 250 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology, and medical device companies, and is one of the few individuals ever elected to all four of the following: the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors.

Today he is widely known as the modern-day Thomas Edison and one of the founding fathers of controlled drug release and tissue engineering, the interdisciplinary science of growing human tissue to repair or replace damaged tissue. He’s engineered new ears for service members who’ve been injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and even helped heal young burn victims. “When you combine engineering and science and medicine,” he told some 300 students, faculty, and staff who filled the Raytheon Amphitheater for his lecture, “you can create new things that can relieve suffering and prolong life.”

“It’s wonderful that Northeastern is celebrating engineering the way it is,” Langer said of the university’s Chemical Engineering Day, which included research poster presentations. “You get what you celebrate, and as an engineer it makes me feel good.”

Never underestimate the power of a good question
Langer’s biggest career success, he said, has been the success of his students. Many of them, he noted, have gone on to win MacArthur prizes, become CEOs, and get elected to the National Academy of Engineering. “The No. 1 thing I’m most excited about is working with students and coming up with new ideas,” he said. “That to me is more important than being with any one company.”

One of his professorial goals has always been to teach his young pupils how to ask good questions. “From grammar school to college, you’re judged by how good your answers are to questions that other people ask you,” he said, “but in life you’re judged by how good your questions are.” When President Aoun asked Langer to describe how he picks the students for his lab, he said, “Sometimes I judge people based on the questions they ask and how passionate they are about their work.”

The science of entrepreneurship
Langer keeps three big goals in mind: Coming up with new ideas, taking the best ones to market, and training the world’s best scientists. For him, making money is secondary to saving lives, some 2 billion of which have been impacted by his work.

His process for deciding which of his lab’s ideas are good enough to pursue in earnest is rather straightforward. If he’s written a seminal paper on the topic, he’ll move forward; if he’s received a patent with broad claims, he’ll move forward; if he’s demonstrated that his drug, his drug delivery system, or his life-saving technology works in animal models, he’ll move forward. It’s also up to his colleagues: “If the people in the lab who did the work want to make products out of the idea, then we’ll talk to venture capitalists.”

His advice for postdoctoral students who’ve been working on a project for a long time and want to take it to the next level is similar: “[The most important thing] is having a big idea that could lead to potential high-impact products,” he said. “You should also have strong IP behind it with the ability to block others from getting in there.”

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