A lab hatches ideas, and companies, by the dozens

KN

How do you take particles in a test tube, or components in a tiny chip, and turn them into a $100 million company?

Dr. Robert Langer, 64, knows how. Since the 1980s, his Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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. Without this kind of technology transfer, the thinking goes, scientific discoveries might well sit on the shelf, stifling innovation.

A chemical engineer by training, Langer has helped start 25 companies and has 811 patents, issued or pending, to his name. That's not too far behind Thomas Edison, who had 1,093. More than 250 companies have licensed or sublicensed Langer Lab patents.

Along the way, Langer and his lab, including about 60 postdoctoral and graduate students at a time, have found a way to navigate some slippery territory: the intersection of academic research and the commercial market.

Over the past 30 years, many universities—including MIT—have set up licensing offices that oversee the transfer of scientific discoveries to companies. These offices have become a major pathway for universities seeking to put their research to practical use, not to mention add to their revenue streams.

In the sciences in particular, technology transfer has become a key way to bring drugs and other treatments to market.

Just a few of the products that have emerged from the Langer Lab are a small wafer that delivers a dose of chemotherapy used to treat brain cancer; sugar-sequencing tools that can be used to create new drugs like safer and more effective blood thinners; and a miniaturised chip (a form of nanotechnology) that can test for diseases.

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