The professor proudly brings out a tiny push-button device and puts it gingerly on his arm. Equipped with micro-needles, this device – named TAP – is used to draw blood from patients for various tests. Conventionally, patients wait anxiously for their blood to be drawn with a needle or finger lancet, which often causes patients to feel discomfort and anxious. With TAP, blood collection is pain-free. Moreover, it can be done at home. TAP is developed by medical device company, Seventh Sense Biosystems based in Massachusetts.
In another demonstration, the professor brings out a small pill and drops it from a short height several times. Thanks to its shape, the capsule can only fall in a single direction, always landing on the same side. This simple capsule could deliver insulin directly into the stomach, potentially replacing daily injections for Type 1 diabetes patients.
The professor is Dr. Robert Langer, 72, who co-founded Seventh Sense. He is also the co-developer of the innovative drug capsule in partnership with pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. More famously, Langer is the co-founder of Moderna, one of the companies leading the fight against the COVID-19 virus through its mRNA vaccine.
If that sounds impressive, how about the fact that Dr. Langer has founded over 40 biotech firms, and holds more than 1,400 granted and pending patents. And to top it all, he is an Institute Professor at MIT in Boston, where he helms the eponymous Langer Lab, one of the largest biomedical engineering labs in the world.
Yet Dr. Langer’s path to success was far from plain sailing. To begin with, his entry into the biomedical field was unconventional. He was trained as a chemical engineer, having completed a Doctor of Science degree in chemical engineering at MIT in 1974. Upon graduation, he realized that many of his peers were off to lucrative careers in the oil industry. While Langer himself received some twenty job offers from oil companies, the prospect of a job in the oil industry didn’t appeal to him, as it seemed unimportant. He was more interested in teaching and research. So he reached out to over 40 colleges for roles as an assistant professor, but did not hear from any of them. Discouraged, he started thinking about venturing into the medical field, applying to various medical schools and hospitals.
His breakthrough came when he wrote to Judah Folkman, a Boston-based surgeon who offered him a post-doctoral position at the Boston Children’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School. But even with this position, he faced an uphill task trying to get applications for his research funding approved. His first nine applications were “rejected very severely”, he recalls. These early applications were for research in drug delivery, which evidently didn’t sound sexy at the time. “Actually, most people then didn’t think drug delivery was important, you know, so when I finally did get a faculty job in a nutrition department, a number of the people, their senior faculty, told me I should leave. And so that was very discouraging.” Dr Langer recalls.
But he persevered in his research, applying his background in chemical engineering and material science to the medical realm. In the 1980s and 1990s, he went on to have a hand in several successful ventures, such as Enzytech in 1987, which produced a microsphere drug delivery system. Enzytech eventually merged with biopharma giant, Alkermes.
With Langer Lab, he now helps other scientists tread a similar path. When asked what he looks out for in entrepreneurs to back, Dr Langer notes that he prioritizes the science ahead of business potential. Of those who have gone through Langer Lab, about half have become professors, while many others went on to entrepreneurship, he estimates. As Dr Langer puts it, “The number one thing that I always think about is people who just great scientists, who want to make discoveries and do curiosity-driven research. But then I also am always very happy if they want to take their discoveries and use it to change the world.”