By Gail Dutton

The laboratories of George Church, PhD, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are legendary for their ability to spin out biopharma companies and entrepreneurs. Both men have each co-founded nearly 50 companies and have advised dozens of companies.

Not surprisingly, they share a number of commonalities that catalyze success for virtually anyone in their labs willing to seize it.

Langer’s 100+ member team focuses on drug delivery mechanisms and tissue engineering. Church’s 86 team members concentrate on genetics and related tools development. Within those categories, lab members’ projects are wide-ranging. Church and Langer provide insights and advice, but typically are not involved in individual experiments.

Make a positive difference

Langer says his goal wasn’t to have a big lab but to get innovations to patients. “When we do something, I want it to make a difference in the world,” Langer tells GEN. “I’m an engineer, and engineers solve problems.”

Having recently celebrated his 75th birthday, companies and foundations seek him out, “offering significant funding to solve certain problems. I’m not going to say ‘no’ to people wanting to solve problems that can really help people’s lives,” Langer says.

Covid vaccine
Moderna received FDA emergency use approval of its COVID-19 Vaccine in the U.S. in December 2020. Langer was a co-founder of Moderna. [Uladzimir Zuyeu/Getty Images]
His penchant for company creation began in 1985 when a friend suggested the two found their own company. Company creation proved effective at delivering innovations to patients that big pharma companies wouldn’t pursue, so they continued.

The mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 is a prime example. It was developed by Moderna, which Langer co-founded. Before the COVID pandemic, he says, “No large pharmaceutical company would touch it, and the press and investors ridiculed it.”

The derision didn’t faze him. “I’ve failed at different times and in different things, but I’m willing to take risks,” Langer says. “It’s better to try and fail than to not try.” He says science and innovation are iterative, and that there are lessons even from failures.

Creating opportunity

Church is known for pursuing big, aspirational ideas, and gradually making them attainable.

Daniel Oliver, CEO and co-founder of Rejuvenate Bio, was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Wyss Institute.

“George is very good at taking a core idea and expanding it,” Oliver says. “He has the vision to articulate seemingly impossible goals, and encourage researchers to pursue it. My co-founder, Church lab alumnus Noah Davidsohn, PhD, and I spun Rejuvenate Bio out of George’s lab at Harvard Medical School. We decided to target the drivers of age-related disease through the use of novel gene therapies.”

Other ideas may be impractical commercially, Church admits, such as his idea to revive the wooly mammoth, but may have eventual applications in enhancing the diversity of endangered species.

“My lab and I gravitate toward quirky projects that are labeled risky, impossible, and/or useless by entrenched power brokers, but which we ‘pivoteers’ find enabling,” Church, now 69, says. In 1976, that meant pioneering research to sequence the human genome. In 2002, it meant taking a few of the first steps to develop universal viral resistance. “For each project, we saw roadmaps of publishable baby steps that significantly de-risked the overall project.”

Rather than drop unsuccessful projects, Church’s lab merely files them away until the technology evolves. At worst, they become inspiration.

Church, therefore, encourages lab members “to have two projects—one that is risky or inspiring and one that is a more mature version of once-risky research.”

While many are there to spin out companies, others aim for careers in academia or industry.

Stan Wang, MD, PhD, CEO and founder of Thymmune, is a former postdoc in Church’s lab and one of many whom Church encouraged to become entrepreneurs. “In working with George, [I realized] I could directly apply scientific innovations to develop products for patients.” His company didn’t spin out of Church’s lab, but Wang met his prior co-founders through it.

George Church's genetics laboratory members.
George Church’s genetics laboratory members.

“George has the unique ability to create opportunity…helping researchers see alternative pathways and ways to apply their work that are more impactful,” Wang says. “His lab, unlike many others, [attracts] folks from all aspects of the biomedical sciences.”

This exposes the postdocs and PhD candidates to a variety of adjacent specialties.

Wang, for example, joined Church’s lab to explore CRISPR applications for next-generation cell and gene therapies, but he also worked with groups engaged in genome engineering, stem cell biology, gene therapy, and safeguarding gene editing technologies.

The right stuff

Church and Langer attract people with the right stuff. They’re extremely talented, collaborative, and, overwhelmingly, nice. In such an environment, success “becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Oliver says.

Of course, not everyone in these labs attains their goals. Some projects don’t turn out well and some students don’t reach their potential. While most do well, Langer says, “You don’t always hit a home run. I try to set them up so… they will at least hit a single or double.”

Both Church and Langer espouse collaboration and openness. As Church says, “My top recruiting criteria is being nice and being motivated [rather than being a genius or particularly ambitious]. We embrace being outsiders in established fields or pioneers of hybrid fields.”

Scientific “Disney World”

Michael Goldberg, CEO of Surge Therapeutics, and a Langer Lab alumnus, describes working in Langer’s lab as “academic Disney World…because if you love science, engineering, and medicine, then it’s the happiest place on Earth. Bob is one of the warmest humans you will ever meet, and he fosters a sense of community infused with kindness.” Goldberg’s company spun out of Harvard Medical School and recently received FDA clearance for its first IND.

Robert Langer's lab beach party.
Robert Langer’s lab beach party.

As Goldberg adds, “Bob’s lab is unique in the extent of its complementarity. Bob established a synergistically collaborative environment that enables researchers of all backgrounds to tackle problems that are intractable to any of them individually.

“The value of complementarity extends beyond the efficiencies of combining practical skill sets,” Goldberg continues. “Scientists, engineers, and physicians each have unique perspectives and strategies for problem-solving.” Multi-disciplinary environments can harness that.

Disruption and collaboration

Both Langer and Church believe in disruptive innovation but take different approaches.

Church’s lab excels at basic research. “George tries to figure out what you are passionate about and then empowers you to go after it,” Lexi Rovner, PhD, co-founder and CEO, 64x Bio, a 2018 Church Lab spinout, says. “He gives you freedom of creativity and thought, doesn’t micromanage. Some amazing things come out of that.”

True to Langer’s engineering background, his lab excels at applied research. “Because the nature of the work in Bob’s lab is so applied, the output of any given research project has the potential to become a technology platform or product,” Goldberg says. “That’s rare in academia.”

Spinout time

“The spirit of George’s lab is to pursue big scientific advancements rather than incremental ones,” Rovner says. When a technology can progress more rapidly outside the lab than inside it and can attract investors, it’s time to spin out.

company lab
eGenesis is a developer of human-compatible organs created through its own multiplexed gene editing platform. Church was a co-founder of the company. [eGenesis]
Langer, who often assumes the role of mentor-for-life, says he has five spinout criteria:

  • a platform technology that produces products rather than more information
  • has been published in a leading scientific journal
  • has a substantial patent base
  • proof-of-concept in animals
  • students who want to spin out a company and work there.

Despite their different focuses, the Langer and Church labs each succeed because of bold ideas that can make substantial improvements in science or directly in people’s lives. They make the impossible seem suddenly possible.

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