We’re excited to announce the launch of our new podcast, Tales from the Trenches: One VC’s quest to illuminate how early-stage companies can survive and thrive during recession.
Click play below to listen
In this show, Remus founder Krishna K. Gupta will have authentic, honest conversations with the visionary entrepreneurs who have built companies during wartime, and he’ll share the lesson he learned launching Remus during the Great Recession and building the firm and dozens of market-leaders over the past decade-plus.
We’re kicking things off with a conversation between Krishna and Bob Langer, co-founder of Moderna and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Remus portfolio company Allurion Technologies. In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How Bob couldn’t get a job in chemical engineering and had to settle for the nutrition department
- How he dealt with naysayers who criticized his spinouts for never reaching patients
- What made Moderna a game-changing success and BIND Biosciences a failure
- About Bob’s exercise routine
Listen above, and/or read the transcript below.
KKG: The past decade has been Disneyland for venture capitalists and company-builders alike. Momentum-driven investors and entrepreneurs have enabled this froth, driving valuations higher and higher, everything completely divorced from fundamentals. Startups have pursued more – more capital, more autonomy, and more growth – at all costs.
Now, everything has changed. We are in wartime, and most of those high-flying adventures are crashing and burning. In that wreckage, capital is expensive, customers are hard to attract, and having founder on your Instagram profile ain’t as cool as it used to be.
But, what if I told you this is the BEST time to be an entrepreneur and an investor? That the companies launched and scaled right now will be at a huge advantage for the coming decade? I know because I started our firm in 2008, one month before Lehman Brothers crashed and set off the Great Recession.
This is Tales from the Trenches, a show where I’ll share what I’ve learned – and what other entrepreneurs have learned – from building companies since the last recession. The idea is to have very real, authentic discussion about what it’s actually like to be in the trenches – to struggle, survive, and thrive during the hardest of times; to be audacious during a time like now.
Our first guest is Bob Langer and we’ll be talking about his journey starting companies over the past few decades.
Bob needs no introduction, as he is a legend. He’s one of 12 institute professors at MIT, a cofounder of Moderna, which hopefully half of you have heard of, and I’m very happy to welcome him as Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board at our portfolio company Allurion Technologies. Thanks for being here with us, Bob.
Bob: It’s a pleasure to be here.
KKG: Our firm Remus Capital prides itself on tenacity and resilience in the trenches alongside our business partners. I started my firm out of an MIT dorm room and built it while living in a basement. This sort of trench warfare mindset I cultivated from the beginning is going to be very useful in the coming years for many entrepreneurs and creators, and that’s what we want to talk to Bob about.
So let’s start with a simple question: what was the most challenging time in your career, and how did you deal with it, Bob? Can you describe the struggle?
Bob: Well, really, I suppose the most challenging time in my career was when I just got started. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I got done with being a graduate student, and all my friends went into oil companies, and I decided I didn’t want to do that. I was looking for some way to make an impact that I felt would be more than increasing the yield of certain chemicals by a tiny percentage. And I tried to get jobs in education, and then in medicine, and nobody would hire me. And finally a man named Judah Folkman at Boston Children’s hired me, and I worked there for three years, and it was to me fantastic.
I learned so much about biology and engineering and medicine, and I did make some discoveries. We published papers in Science on isolating the very first substances that could stop blood vessels from growing, which would 28 years later lead to drugs like Avastin, and of course the other thing that partly permitted that was we developed the very first nano or micro particles that could deliver large molecules like RNA or DNA, or peptides or proteins or anything else.
And I was very excited about it, but the work…even though we did publish in Nature, many people ridiculed it and said it was not possible. The consequence of that for me was that I got my first nine research grants turned down, I got no chemical engineering department in the country — I’m an academic — and no chemical engineering department in the country would hire for me for a job. They offered me interviews, but I didn’t get any jobs, and I don’t think I interviewed that bad. They all said, ‘this bio stuff you’re doing doesn’t make any sense for a chemical engineer.’
And finally I got a job in a nutrition department, but the guy who hired me, he was also an institute professor — Nevin Scrimshaw. He was a visionary nutritionist. But he was what I’ll call a benevolent dictator kind of department head, meaning that he offered me job because he liked me, but he didn’t ask anybody else in the department what they thought. That might have been ok, but the year after I joined the department they left, so a lot of the senior faculty told me I should leave too. So it was a real struggle.
How did I deal with it? I mean, there wasn’t any real good way to deal with it. I had good friends in Alex Klibanoff and Mike Barletta also in that department, and we would have yogurt lunches every Saturday and talk about work and other things. But I just kept trying. I believed in what I was doing, and I just kept trying and to me I believed in it, and I just kept at it, and eventually things worked out.
KKG: You know, I think every great story starts with a struggle. I first heard of you at MIT, where I was a materials science major. And I was amazed, honestly, by the entrepreneurial output your lab was achieving. I actually chose to come to MIT because I wanted to started a company, and a lot of what you were doing was inspiring to me, so thank you. But there were also a lot of these people who would say, you know, oh, none of the inventions have ever reached a patient or impacted a patient, which I always felt was unfair. How did you feel about these voices and these sort of detractors? And how did it feel at a very human, personal level when Moderna became such a massive success both commercially and in terms of global impact?
Bob: Well you know, I guess the first point is whenever you do something in medicine, it takes a really long time. We did get…I think it took, the first product that we got approved that was based on work in our lab, it wasn’t a company I started but it was a license that was a new treatment for brain cancer called Gliadel, that got approved actually in 1996, which was still 20 years after that Nature paper that we did. And that felt great, but that obviously affects a limited number of people. After that we got others approved too.
And some of the companies we started I think did pretty well — certainly not Moderna well, but they were multi-billion dollar exits. But that being said…and Moderna was also criticized a lot. The news media, stock analysts, clinicians…a lot of people criticized it a lot. Personally I think they did because they were jealous, but I mean, that’s life.
But nonetheless, people may not realize this, but when we announced the first phase 1 clinical trials, this was in May of 2020, the Boston Globe interviewed a bunch of people, and just like I said, they criticized it. They said “this is not how you do science.” So the front page headline — I have a slide of this, actually — on May 19th, 2020 I believe was “this is not how you do science” and talked about Moderna. My picture is right underneath it on the very front page. That was pretty disappointing.
But the way I always tell the story is, well, six months later — I’m on the board of Moderna, I’ve been on since the beginning and I’m still on — you know, we broke the code of what’s called the phase 3 clinical trial. You know, you have 30K patients, 15K get the placebo, 15K get treated, and it’s double-blind, so nobody knows. Well they broke the code in the middle of November of 2020, and I mean the results were remarkable. Of the 15K who were treated, not a single one died, not a single one went to the hospitable, and it was 94-95% effective, which was, you know, unprecedented.
And I mean, Pfizer and BioNTech, also using nanoparticles, in fact going back in part to the discoveries I made in the 70s, also using mRNA and nanoparticles, and they also had over 90% effectiveness.
KKG: I’m sure building Moderna has been quite a journey, and so to that point, tell us how you work in trench mode. You know, when you have felt like you were under attack, and sometimes when you felt like you just needed to get through it, needed to survive, a lot of stress — what are the things you do day to day, what are the kinds of habits that you’ve adopted as an innovator and an entrepreneur.
Bob: Well there’s a variety of things. I mean one thing I do every day, and I’ve done for a long time, is exercise a lot. I used to run a lot, now I walk a lot.
KKG: How often do you exercise?
Bob: Oh, all the time. I mean, my goal…in fact, if I look even this year, and I’m 74, if I do my iPhone, I’ve averaged 13 miles a day walking and running.
Bob: And I lift weights three times a week too.
KKG: Well you look like it.
Bob: Well I don’t know about that, but I mean part of the reason I do it is my dad died of a heart attack at 61, and it scares me. I want to be there for my kids, my wife, and the people in the lab and so forth. So I do that no matter what, and I think that exercise definitely helps me on anything I do.
KKG: I can relate to that. I have been working out for now 1500 days straight, and I just force myself no matter what. And it helps in everything.
Bob: So I think that’s one thing that’s good. But you know sometimes you have to sort of look at the specific thing that causes stress. And sometimes, like I’ve been fortunate like I mentioned to have good friends over the years. And they still are, and sometimes I ask them for advice, or ask my wife for advice, and you know I think getting advice is always good — sort of when you look at something with your own eyes, it’s very easy to take things personally and hard to sort of step aside. So I think having people who I’m close to, who are willing to give me advice and give good advice — that’s always meant something. I try to do that for my students and my friends and my family too. So I think it’s all those things.
KKG: You have an incredible reputation for being very responsive, helpful to everyone in the community, so that’s probably partially a result of some good advice you’ve gotten along the way as well.
Bob: Well you know I don’t know that…that that’s why I do…it’s interesting. I feel that I like helping people. I’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction out of helping people, going back to even when I was a graduate student, in fact I spent most of my graduate student days helping to build a school for disadvantaged kids, you know working class kids in Cambridge, and I loved that, and one of the reasons I became a professor rather than do anything else is because I really have enjoyed working with students and teaching, and so I think that it’s more…I mean maybe it’s something I got from my mom or my dad, I don’t know. And it’s not like I do it for any other reason other than that I enjoy…
KKG: It’s your utility function. Your utility function spikes when other people do well and you’re supporting them.
Bob: Yeah. I…
KKG: Have you done a Myers-Briggs test?
Bob: Actually I have done that. The only thing…and I don’t remember the letters I get. The only thing I know for sure, it’s kind of funny — my wife is outgoing, and all 3 of my kids are outgoing, and I’ve always been super shy. So I know all of them, the first letter was “E.” And my first letter was “I.” Other than that, I guess, I’m pretty similar to them. But I always have noticed that I would get an I, and I really — when I was a young guy, I was super shy. I still am pretty shy. So I think that…so I have taken that test, yeah.
KKG: Well I was asking just because you know there are certain types that are empathetic and really get a joy out of helping others achieve their potential. And you may be somewhere related to that type.
Bob: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean I still…even now, with all the people who have gone through the lab and all the companies, gee, when one of my students gets a great job or gets an award or we get a paper accepted in a top journal…you know, makes me really happy. And we’ve had that happen a lot, but it doesn’t change the fact that it makes you happy.
KKG: Yeah, well it’s good. Being happy is good, it’s important and drives a lot of success. So I think it’s great that you’ve figured out how to make other people successful and in the process you’ve been very successful yourself.
So, speaking of success: what in your experience has kind of distinguished a successful outcome from an unsuccessful outcome? When I was at MIT, as I mentioned earlier, I was completely enamored with your work on functionalizing gold nanoparticles, particularly as a drug delivery mechanism. I remember my favorite exam at MIT was one on organic biomaterials, where one of the exam questions was functionalizing gold nanoparticles to achieve a particular goal. And I in fact tried several times to intern at Bind Biosciences, but clearly I wasn’t qualified. So let’s take Moderna…
Bob: You should have written me.
KKG: I should have written you. I think in fact maybe I got the intro through you. So let’s take like a Moderna and a Bind Biosciences. Both of them based on highly compelling, cutting-edge technology and vision. And what do you think was determinative of semi-determinative for Moderna to be such a successful outcome, in your opinion, vs. say a Bind not quite making it, and how long do you think that outcome was kind of in doubt?
Bob: Yeah, well I actually thought Bind would be successful, and it’s interesting — not only was I there from the beginning with Bind, but Noubar Afeyan, who was at Flagship was also there from the beginning, and he was also there from the beginning at Moderna. So there are a number of sort of control things. So what was the big difference?
To me, by far the biggest difference…I mean the technologies were somewhat different, although both involved nanoparticle drug delivery systems, to me by far the biggest difference was the CEOs. And at Bind, we went through 3 CEOs. And part of it was they just didn’t believe.
One was a venture capitalist, and you’d talk to him and he’d say, well we can’t ask company X for more than $1M, they’ll never do it. And Omid Farokhzad, who was the fellow with me who really developed a lot of that technology, said how could you not think that? And people, you know, they criticized Omid, saying, well, you’re wrong, nobody will do more than $1M. Anyhow, they kept talking like that, and Omid eventually got involved in firing several of these. But they kept thinking like that: thinking small.
In contrast, Stephane Bancel, who is the CEO of Moderna doesn’t think small. He thinks big, which is the right way to think in every way. And so he would try to, whether it was raise a lot of money or think of grand visions. And I think Noubar and I tried to do that in both cases, but there are enough people when you’re doing this thing, and investors come in, and sometimes people don’t think that way, and they’re very conservative.
So I really think if I was looking at the biggest difference, it was the CEO. There are certainly companies that have started…messenger RNA companies that have started sRNA companies that have done poorly. I was also involved from the beginning on the scientific advisory board of Alnylam. Many sRNA companies did very poorly. But John Maraganore, who was the CEO for many many years and the initial CEO of Alnylam, was also a terrific CEO, also a very big thinker. And I think that having a great CEO…I know the news media and different people criticize CEOs for getting paid a lot. I’ve always thought boy they’re worth every penny. You know, getting a great CEO to me, at every company I’ve ever seen, is absolutely the most important thing. And sadly, to your point, the opposite is true.
KKG: Yeah. Well I’ve certainly seen that across our portfolio. And at the end of the day a leader is a leader. And they set the tone. And I actually agree 100% with you that when the leader thinks very big, a lot of things follow from that. And conversely when a leader sort of can’t think big, there’s not much you can do to make up for that.
So look, finally, I think last question for us today is what fulfills you today? What prompts you to join companies like Allurion or Establishment Labs and help in such a meaningful way as we look to scale impact and viability across a larger base?
Bob: Well, there’s a lot of things. I think part of it’s the challenge of doing something new. Part of it’s the ability to make some impact. Part of it is the people. You know, working with smart people, young people, people that I think I’ll enjoy working with. A lot of different things.
I realized one other thing that I probably should have said too about the Bind and Moderna thing. And I think this is an important thing that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about.
At Bind, not only did the CEOs think small — they were very, very worried about competition. And I kept saying to them, you know, you shouldn’t worry so much about competition or somebody else doing well. You should worry about how well we do. And you know, they didn’t like that. They kept saying well, but this company’s competing with us, and that company’s doing nanotechnology, and I kept saying…and sometimes these were students of mine, and I had helped some of them, and this is terrible, you know. And my feeling is that all boats rise. If the technology works, then that’s really the key.
And you can look at, like, Moderna has done great. BioNtech’s done pretty well too. And I don’t think it’s hurt Moderna very much. Whereas Cerulean and others were working in this nanotechnology space similar to Bind, and some of the CEOs were so concerned about them.
So I just think in the medical area, most of the time people fail. So it’s much more important to worry about yourself than to worry about your competitors.
KKG: Perfect. Well look, thanks for being here Bob, and thanks everyone for listening. And tune in next time.