Bridging academia and industry: Q & A with scientist and entrepreneur Timothy Springer

Timothy Springer on entrepreneurship

Biological chemist and molecular pharmacologist Timothy A. Springer, PhD, is poised at the nexus of academia and industry. As an academic — currently at Harvard Medical School, the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center — he has used monoclonal antibodies as research tools to unravel key mysteries of the immune system. As an entrepreneur, his discoveries — and those of others he has backed — have successfully launched seven companies. Drawing from his own entrepreneurship experience, he now aims to create his own innovation center, focused on accelerating antibody science toward drug discovery while helping nurture and mentor young scientist entrepreneurs. Vector sat down with Springer for his insights.

Why did you become a scientist?

Not because I thought I would make money. I always believed academia to be an impecunious profession — compensated by freedom and the ability to travel and meet people internationally. And I thought that would make science a lot of fun.

How did you shift from pure academia to industry?

I’ll never forget. I came to Harvard Medical School [in 1977] and started making monoclonal antibodies. A guy came from out of left field and wanted to start an antibody company together. I basically said I wasn’t interested. That was a mistake. I just didn’t have the right vision for how to do it.

Later, three people were recruited out of my laboratory by Boehringer Ingelheim. And Bob Rothlein [at Boehringer] hired me as a consultant and the company sponsored research in my laboratory. I got very large research grant support, and they got patents to my antibodies. One went into the clinic; although it failed, that was good experience for me.

Given the successes of LeukoSite, Selecta Biosciences and Moderna, all companies you founded or backed, is there any formula for success?

No, there isn’t. The founders and the connections are very important. And the science has to be there or you’re not going to get a product.

It can be very helpful to publish. When you have a good peer-reviewed article, it definitely gets the pharmaceutical companies’ attention. But Bob Langer at MIT and I have been telling Moderna to publish for many years. And [Moderna CEO] Stefane Bancel has proven that you can be incredibly successful without publishing anything, except patents. So who’s to say?

What’s the most common mistake scientists make when trying to launch a company?

Timothy Springer on entrepreneurshipMost of the time, the idea isn’t good enough. In academia, it’s often the oddity, the unexpected thing, that becomes publishable; and it’s also the thing people use to start companies. Well, pharmaceutical companies are now in the business of trying to reproduce those findings and between two-thirds and 80 percent cannot be reproduced. So that is a common reason for failure.

In fact, I’ve sold companies short in cases like that. Two were started by founders who were at Harvard Medical School. So it can happen to the best of us, right?

I can almost always tell the bad science. But to tell the ideas that are going to be successful is harder. There are some people who are very good scientists, and they have good ideas and still, the companies fail. It’s a tricky business.

As an investor and philanthropist, have you yourself ever made mistakes?

I only made one bad investment. It wasn’t in biotech. It was in a molecular graphics company, started by a guy at Stanford. I loved the product but didn’t know much about the business model. It went down the tubes and, funny, about 10 years later, the founder won the Nobel Prize.

What’s happening now in the biotech world in Boston?

One of the big trends now in the pharmaceutical community is that they want to have lots of academic innovators. We have a rich community here in biotech, pharmaceuticals and medical science. Everybody wants to be here. I can just ride my bike over to Kendall Square, and I feel like I’m in the middle of the biomedical universe. There are a lot of business deals being done, just in that community. But in the Longwood Medical Area, we don’t have the infrastructure to support this in terms of the mass transit or the highway system. We need to get some system to connect Longwood with Kendall Square and the Seaport Innovation District.

How do you envision helping scientists with good ideas in this biomedical mecca?

I want to have a program that fosters entrepreneurship, like this program at Stanford called SPARK. They have a set of advisors — business professionals — working pro bono. Students make presentations about their ideas. There’s educational seminars, like somebody to come in and talk about pharmacodynamics.

What do you consider your greatest success?

Boy, that’s hard. As scientists, we’re never content with what we’ve done in the past, no matter how great it is. I discovered a number of the integrins in 1979. And I’ve learned a huge amount about them. But I think just right now, I really have final proof of how they work. So I think that is going to be one of my crowning achievements.

Read yesterday’s in-depth profile of Springer.