Q: Why did you become a scientist?
A: In my day, there was this
company called A. C. Gilbert that
made these great erector, chemistry, and microscope sets. I got
them for various birthdays. Later
on, in high school, I was good in
math and science and terrible in
everything else. People would say
to me, “You should become an
engineer.” I thought engineers ran
railroad cars. I went to Cornell and
majored in engineering. My first
term, the only class I liked and did
OK in was chemistry, so I decided
I would be a chemical engineer.
When I graduated with my
doctorate in 1974, the standard
chemical engineering job was to
work at an oil company. I wasn’t
excited about that. So I kept looking for things I felt would make an impact, that would help
people. I ended up working as a postdoc with Judah Folk-man, a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. He had this
idea that if you could stop blood vessels, maybe that would
be a way to stop cancer. I thought, “Boy, this is a lot better
than oil companies.” If it worked, it would be incredible.
Q: How did you go from scientist to entrepreneur?
A: My project was to isolate the first angiogenesis inhibitors. We invented microparticles that release an inhibitor
of blood vessel growth to starve the growing tumors. I
thought, “We’ll publish our work on microparticles, and
everybody will use them clinically.” And then nobody did.
Nobody used them to help people. So we patented them
and licensed them. After about 10 years, somebody called
me. They were going to work with the microspheres we
developed, but they did only an experiment or two a
year. I was frustrated. About a year later, Alex Klibanov, a
professor at MIT, said, “Bob, we should start a company.”
Q: What, in your view, is the most common mistake
scientists make when trying to launch a company?
A: Starting too early. It is a long road in the medical
area. If you start up too early, you
may have trouble getting invest-
ment. Even if you succeed, then
by the time you get to clinical
trials, the investors may get tired.
Q: What is the connection
between graduate science education and entrepreneurship?
A: When you’re a student, you’re
judged by how well you answer
questions. But in life, you’re
judged by how good your ques-
tions are. You want students
and postdocs to transition from
giving good answers to asking
good questions. Then they’ll
become great professors, great
entrepreneurs, great something.
When somebody is a student
or postdoc, what is going to help
them through is to be stretched. Feeling some of that
discomfort, knowing how to get through it—the fact that
you can prove to yourself that you can get through, and
you can do well—that is wonderful, as long as it is not
Q: How do you advise scientists to approach their careers?
A: I always tell people, “Just follow your heart. Pick
something you think you are going to love.” To me, that is
the most important thing.
Q: What is your take-home message to budding
A: Do great science. Don’t sacrifice publishing good science to be secretive. Then go to the next step and patent
it—and do licensing and start companies. That can be
incredibly fulfilling because it gives you the opportunity to
take your ideas—and give your students the opportunities
to take their ideas along with you—and create things that
could change the world and make it a better place. ■
Trisha Gura is a freelance writer who lives in Boston. For
more on life and careers visit www.sciencecareers.org.
“Don’t sacrifice publishing
good science to be secretive.”
The art of entrepreneurship
Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is the most cited engineer in history, with more than 163,000 citations. He holds more than 1000 patents, licensed or sublicensed to more than 300 companies, and he has helped found at least two dozen biotechnology companies. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
By Trisha Gura