“When I first came here, after a year or two, a lot of people told me I should leave. They said I was never going to even get promoted past assistant professor. A lot of people in the scientific community didn’t believe in the science I was doing; they thought it was wrong. And so I got my first nine grants turned down,” recounted Professor Robert S. Langer ScD ’74.
Thirty-four years after joining the MIT faculty, Langer is one of 14 professors holding the title of Institute Professor — the highest honor awarded to a faculty member. He is the most cited engineer in history, holds about 800 granted or pending patents, and leads the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. His remarkable collection of awards and honors overflows the walls of his office at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Some of his most notable accolades include the Priestley Medal, the United States National Medal of Science, the Millennium Technology Prize, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and the Charles Stark Draper Prize — the engineering equivalent of the Nobel.
“Anybody can get lucky once,” saysJohn T. Santini Jr., a former graduate student of Robert S. Langer’s and a cofounder with Langer of the company MicroCHIPS. “It’s a little harder to get lucky 25 times.”
Langer, 63, has shown time and again that he’s no one-hit wonder. This serial entrepreneur has cofounded about 25 companies and licensed technology to scores more. All that commercialization is in service of his primary goal—making sure his inventions help improve health.
America became great because it transformed its vast natural resources -- Iowa farmland, Mesabi iron, Texas crude -- into human capital, equipped with skills to succeed in the Information Age.
Now, when human capital is king, some look toward Texas and North Dakota and see natural-resource extraction as a path to economic rejuvenation. But if we look at Australia, the model of a major mineral producer, we see that widespread prosperity comes not from the stuff beneath the ground but from the stuff between our ears.