Turning Ideas Into Execution. Q&A with Bob Langer
On February 25, 2019, Ken Banta’s Vanguard Network and Park Square Executive Search convened a select group of Life Sciences CEOs for a working dinner, led by celebrated innovator Bob Langer.
Langer, Institute Professor at MIT, has launched dozens of biotech and med tech companies, and mentored hundreds of future leaders and CEOs. Joining the dialogue were two exceptional biotech innovators and leaders, Sangeeta Bhatia and Jeff Karp, who have worked closely with Langer.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What does it mean to innovate, as opposed to deliver great ideas or great execution?
Bob: The dictionary says that it is to create a product or process. It’s important that it be a really good product or process, and I would add that it must have an impact on the world.
But it’s not just new things. It takes innovation to do basic work as well. There’s a lot of innovation in discovery, even if it’s very basic.
Sangeeta: First, you have to have a new observation and it’s not always obvious. Second, you must have the right ecosystem. Third, it’s not innovation until we dock it — figure out where to point these new capabilities.
Jeff: Innovation is the dream. It’s why we’re all here. But it can only be retrospectively defined. You can’t claim something is innovative until you show it helps someone.
What is the core mission of innovation leaders such as yourselves: Is it to drive discovery, or to find applications?
Bob: In terms of creating companies, what’s driven me is to do the best research in the lab. Think about the potential applications. Financial success has never been the goal. The driving force is getting something out into the world.
First, I thought that publishing papers would get products made. The natural thing would be to license to large companies. But they didn’t develop the technologies. Small companies are able to make more progress than super-large companies.
Over the years people would ask me to start companies. More than 100 products have come out of the lab. All have been based on the passion of students and postdocs. The spectrum of financial success has varied.
You’ve become a catalyst for student ideas, and investors trust you.
Bob: Investors want to reduce risk. They make decisions based on people, ideas, initial results, patents. They look at all of these things.
Sangeeta: Reducing risk is a key concept. And there’s a halo effect, a benefit from knowing Bob. Let’s call it the Bob Langer effect. Before I take an idea out into the world, I go to Bob and get feedback.
Jeff: Gathering other perspectives is important. When I get to a certain point in a project, I call on others. Through meeting new people in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, every 2-3 weeks for the past 12 years I have developed many relationships, many who serve as informal advisors to our ongoing projects and some have become CEOs of companies we have started. Otherwise, it’s tough to develop instantaneous relationships. It’s important to get the word out and have established trust within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as well as the media.
When you’re in the path of innovation, there are lots of opportunities. What not to do? When do you change direction?
Sangeeta: Pivoting is important. In academic labs we pivot all the time. Don’t think of it as an existential crisis. It’s a playground. But that’s while it’s still in academia. Once it’s out in the world, in a startup, it’s harder to pivot.
Bob: In academia, you can afford to pivot all the time. For a company to succeed, you need to focus. In companies, you’re accountable for the money. In academics we are very lucky. All we have to do is write good papers and train students well.
Jeff: Academia really is a playground. If something is to fail, you can think about it from a different angle. Provided you have requisite expertise in the lab and resources, there is literally nothing not worth advancing.
We try to think about all the possible things that we could work on and then apply a filter for what could help patients in the shortest length of time.
Ken Banta: Companies don’t pivot enough. We’ve all seen a graveyard of companies that don’t pivot. Sticking with a bad idea for a long time takes companies down the drain.
What’s your advice for CEOs who want to be successful?
Bob: Hire great people, raise a lot of money, and select good targets, especially if they prove your tech works. It doesn’t have to be the biggest market.
It’s much easier if you have a platform, a technology you can apply to many different diseases. Judiciously pick shots on goal. Try to prove in a credible animal model, a human model with easy regulatory barriers.
In medicine, it’s so easy to fail and so expensive.
Do you start with a problem or a solution?
Bob: In academics, I’ve done both. In companies I’ve have had a technology platform.
If I had started with problems, I would have been mostly wrong. I don’t know who’s smart enough to know all the applications.
The good thing about biotech is that if you have one success, you are doing well. The first company I consulted with was Genentech. Some things we thought would be good weren’t. There was enough money to have some failures and build technology. It’s really important to live through that.
Which is harder – to be a scientist or a CEO?
Bob: CEO is a harder job. Most of the technologies we’ve been involved in have been published in top journals. It doesn’t mean they will generate top companies.
When hiring a CEO who can bring your platform to market, what do you look for?
Jeff: Unfortunately, you always try to hire yourself. I recognized that I’m not always the best judge of character, but someone in my lab is. So I never hire anyone myself. I give group veto rights.
You want a CEO who has a Rolodex of contacts, someone who can fill the holes that exist whether it be regulatory, reimbursements, IP, pricing, or just recruiting talent – ideally you want a CEO who has people involved in their past successes who are excited to work with them again. CEOs should surround themselves with the most critical experts to constantly pressure test everything. We have blinders, we’re enamored by our own technology.
Bob: Hiring great people is the single most important thing. It’s always the challenge. Very, very hard. Someone may be a great CEO at 50, but lousy at 30 and 70.
Look for someone extremely bright, extremely hard working, good at many things, knows who to ask if they don’t know. Great at hiring people, raising money, being very credible, always asking questions. They should understand intellectual property, regulatory, reimbursement, and many other things.
Negatives would be: not working hard, not being that smart, insecure. You don’t want arrogance because it will cost the company. A CEO can’t care about winning a fight or showing how smart they are.
Jeff: You want someone with a fire in the belly. Someone happy to receive a text at midnight. Someone with the will to crush it. Someone who is committed to making the world a better place.
Be part of the conversation!
Hear directly from world-class leaders at The Vanguard Forum for Life Sciences Leaders in Boston on October 16, 2019. Request your invite to attend.