Groundbreaking science innovators share insights, advice at UNC

Feb. 4, 2010

Chapel Hill, N.C. — Students enrolled in the scientific track of UNC's undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship and a First Year Seminar, Engines of Innovations, got a rare opportunity to explore innovation and its link to higher education with top scientific entrepreneurs and innovators.

Chancellor Holden Thorp and UNC entrepreneur-in-residence Buck Goldstein, who co-teach the seminar, hosted MIT Koch Institute innovation expert Robert Langer and UNC scientist entrepreneur Joe DeSimone for a discussion on "Entrepreneurial Science and Enterprise Creation in the Research University."

Thorp and Goldstein picked the brains of both scientists in an interview format followed by opening the floor to students for questions. Among the questions: "Of the companies you've started, how many of them failed?" "Is there a role for liberal arts or social science majors in scientific entrepreneurship? "What are the world's biggest problems?

Later the same day, Langer spoke to a standing-room-only crowd on "Biomaterials and Biotechnology" at the February Carolina Innovations Seminar hosted by the UNC Office of Technology Development along with the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Carolina Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence and the entrepreneurship minor.

Making a difference in people's lives

"The most important experience that led to where I am today was working in a pediatric surgery lab in a hospital," said Langer as he outlined his career path.

Langer, whom DeSimone called "the Thomas Edison of our age," has received more than 170 major awards, including the 2006 United States National Medal of Science; the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, and the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world's largest technology prize. In 1998, he received the Lemelson-MIT prize for being "one of history's most prolific inventors in medicine." He currently holds over 750 patents issued and pending worldwide. Langer's specialty is the interface of biotechnology and materials science with a focus on the study and development of polymers to deliver drugs.

DeSimone, Chancellor's Eminent Professor of Chemistry, has become one of the nation's premier scientists. He is also a recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and is the youngest member ever named to the National Academy of Engineering. He holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents. He is the founder of Liquidia Technologies, a Morrisville company that is using nano-technology to revolutionize vaccines and drug delivery methods.

Both men have brought numerous discoveries out of the lab and into the world through startup companies, spinouts and licensing of technologies.

In 1974, Langer said, most MIT Ph.D.s went to work either for a large chemical company or continued in academics. However, he got a job in a pediatric surgery lab of a hospital, which changed his path forever.

"Being around doctors was how I found out about medical problems that needed to be solved and how I got ideas for applying engineering to medicine, which was very different at the time," he said.

After spending 10 years doing research in a lab, he produced a lot of papers. But papers didn't do anything. "I figured out that the only way to really do something to help people was to form companies," he said.

DeSimone said his path was also influenced by trying to apply good science in ways that directly touched people. "Making a difference in people's lives is very motivating," said DeSimone.

Multi-disciplinary efforts key to success

The ideal lab is multi-disciplinary, says Langer. In his lab, people want to help others and see entrepreneurship as a path for accomplishing that, he said.

DeSimone sees his lab as a fluid, dynamic, interdependent environment with a lot of engagement and accountability.

"It's a contact sport and it's not for everyone. People have access to each other's work," he said.

Solving problems in other disciplines requires building bridges, he said. "We need to learn each others language and then build small teams around a problem and work together."

Langer agreed. Medical doctors know what the problems are. The ideal lab would have engineers, biological scientists and clinical scientists working to solve them.

DeSimone adds modeling and simulations to his "dream lab" along with networks for handling the huge amount of data now available. He'd create a listening environment with a great deal of peer review and add entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to the mix.

Both agreed there is a role for liberal arts and social science majors in scientific venture.

"An effective CEO is key to the success of a company and a good CEO must possess good communication skills, sales skills, hiring skills — the tools to create a good work environment," said Langer.

Asking big questions

Langer and DeSimone offered personal advice as well as technical and business advice to students.

Langer stressed believing in yourself and your ideas, regardless of criticism.

"If you come up with real important ideas, a lot of people won't like it," he said "It's good to listen to what others say, but don't necessarily stop." It is difficult to learn not to personalize failure. "You can let it beat you, or you can listen, learn and keep going."

Both DeSimone and Langer said grant proposals for their earliest ideas were turned down. "My first proposal got turned down because it was bad. But I didn't quit," said DeSimone.

Langer guessed that of the 2,000 products he'd worked on, 25 percent had been hugely successful, 65 percent had found some success and 10 percent were poor or had gone out of business.

He advised students to expose themselves to many fields in order to figure out what they really like to do and then to learn to ask big questions. "We spend the first part of our lives learning to answer questions. But as we progress, we need to learn to ask the questions and not be afraid to ask big questions."