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ILP Institute Insider

March 14, 2016

Turning Technology into Startup Success

Robert Langer, who has helped launch dozens of biotech startups, looks at the long tricky road to commercialize medical innovations.

Eric Bender

MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer runs the world’s largest academic biomedical engineering lab. In his dramatically productive career, Langer has generated more than 1,100 patents and patent applications covering new methods of drug delivery, innovative biomaterials and a broad spectrum of other biotechnology advances.

Robert S. Langer
MIT Institute Professor
These patents have been licensed or sublicensed to over 300 companies. But years ago, Langer says, he learned that often the best route to actually improve patient care is to form a startup company built around the technology, rather than to license it out and hope for the best. He now has co-founded more than 30 biotech firms, with at least one more on the way.

Given this extraordinary track record, what does Langer see as the key ingredients required to start turning innovations into corporations? “First, have we made a real breakthrough?” he says. “Second, have we advanced that breakthrough far enough that we can publish the data on it? Third, have we got really good patent protection, and do we understand the intellectual property in a deep way? Fourth, do we have people in the lab who worked on this project and passionately want to be part of a company? And fifth, is it a platform technology, where you can use the same manufacturing procedures over and over again but for different products?”

All the signs seemed positive for SQZ Biotech, founded in 2013 after graduate student Armon Sharei came up with a way to insert material into cells by squeezing them with a microfluidic technique.

“It was amazing that by squeezing cells you could insert anything from nanorods to quantum dots to genes,” says Langer, who co-advised Sharei with chemical engineering professor Klavs Jensen. “Armon was very excited about starting a company. We did, and he’s now CEO.”

In December 2015, Boston-based SQZ signed an agreement with Roche Pharmaceuticals to develop its technology to treat tumors by shooting cancer-associated proteins into immune system cells. The deal holds promise to bring a fundamentally new tool for treating cancer — and potentially to bring a $500-million-plus payoff to the young company.

SQZ is just one of the latest in a wildly diverse string of Langer startups going back more than 30 years. These firms have generated products varying from brain-cancer treatments to “painless” blood collection equipment and from hair thickeners to miniaturized magnetic resonance diagnostic devices.

Delivering material progress
“Our research is at the interface of materials science, biological engineering, chemical engineering and medicine,” says Langer. “We have something like 150 people, from all kinds of disciplines, ranging from practicing clinicians to molecular biologists, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, materials scientists and synthetic chemists. We have great people. I like to think we come up with some great high-level ideas, and we turn those people loose.”

One drug delivery project, for instance, began with a visit from Bill Gates and colleagues at the Gates Foundation. Gates asked Langer to tackle the challenge of patient compliance in taking medicine — an enormous healthcare challenge, especially in developing countries.
“People forget to take their pills or their shots, and that leads to terrible problems and millions of deaths a year,” Langer explains. “We’ve been working to solve that problem with pills that last for any length of time — a week, a month, a year even, depending on the indication.”

Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, led the project in the Langer lab. One result was a drug-holding polymer designed to reside safely in the stomach rather than passing on to the rest of the digestive track. Langer, Traverso and three students launched a Cambridge-based startup called Lyndra, which has tested the concept successfully in hundreds of pigs. Unsurprisingly, existing drug companies keep a close watch on this research, which “could fundamentally change the way we take drugs,” Langer suggests.

Among other delivery research projects, Langer’s lab has created microchips that can be implanted in the body to release drugs via remote-control (and eventually, he hopes, doing so automatically by sensing conditions in the body). Another ongoing effort looks at ways to deliver large-molecule drugs via pills, rather than infusions or injections. Additionally, researchers are collaborating with David Edwards, a former student and now professor at Harvard Medical School, to create “new aerosols that are much more efficient getting into the lung, maybe by an order of magnitude,” Langer says. “Those aerosols are being explored for a variety of diseases, like Parkinson’s disease.”

His group also works on tissue engineering — combining polymers and cells in unique ways to create new tissues and organs. One recent example is joint research with Daniel Anderson, a former postdoc who is now an MIT chemical engineering professor, to encapsulate insulin-producing cells in super-biocompatible polymers. Funded by the JDRF, this project aims to aid in treating people with type 1 diabetes, who generate little or no insulin on their own.

Investigators used high-throughput synthesis techniques to create alginate capsules optimized to protect the insulin-producing cells from attack by the immune system and to avoid being covered with fibrous tissues — which had choked capsules implanted in previous research attempts.

These capsules operated effectively for months when tested in animals who couldn’t produce enough insulin on their own. “There’s still a distance from success in animals to success in people, but these results are exciting,” Langer says. “And we’re starting a company for this too.”

Finding the right people and partners
Although breakthrough technologies are critical for biotech startups, “a company will succeed or fail more on the people than on the technology,” Langer declares. “I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish it was just the science. But I think that having a great CEO is probably the single most important requirement.”

Additionally, “having patient and smart investors is very important, particularly investors who can actually help you build the company,” he says. “We work very closely with a number of venture capitalists, and we collectively try to think through the company strategy.” He adds that startups also should be careful in picking angel investors, especially since many of these investors want to be paid back within a few years, which is often impractical.

Partnerships with bigger companies, crucial to so many startups, also depend on personal connections. “You need a champion at the large company who is a real advocate that the large company listens to,” Langer says. “And sometimes that person gets promoted or moves, which makes it difficult.”

Additionally, startups need to properly frame their relationships with established firms. “You don’t want to give everything away,” Langer comments. “You probably want to focus on one area that’s relatively narrow but very important for the large company, and do a great job on it. That then gives you the opportunity to develop other things yourself or with other companies. It can be hard to establish that kind of relationship, where you make a relatively narrow deal. That’s one reason why it’s so important to have great business people working with you.”

Although financing and FDA approvals never come easy, and the paths of startups never run smooth, many biotechs are more-or-less steadily moving their products and technologies through all the challenges and towards the clinics.

“Right now, the area around MIT has the highest concentration of biotech companies in the world,” Langer says. “It’s a wonderful environment for entrepreneurs.”

“This is a very exciting time in medical history,” he adds. “We’ll see genetic therapies move forward at an even greater pace. There also are exciting advances in cancer research, immune therapy, nanotechnology, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. I think that people in the future will live healthier and happier lives — certainly healthier!”