The Thin Line Between Academic Good and Commercial Gain

The New York Times recently published an article about Langer Lab at MIT and the new thin boundaries between academics and the commercial world. A quick glance at the numbers in the article might appear to paint a poor picture:

  • End products from Langer labs have resulted in raising $28.4 million in an initial public offering and another $23 million in a round of financing in the summer of 2011.
  • Dr. Langer has helped start 25 companies and his entrepreneurial activity has made him a millionaire.
  • Washington University in St. Louis has $25 million pact with Pfizer to collaborate more closely on biomedical research.
  •  University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center owns stock in Aveo Oncology, which had announced earlier that the university would be leading clinical trials of one of its cancer drugs.

Looking at the numbers, however, hardly does justice to univerisities and dedicated researchers like Dr. Langer. Without such relationships in place, great products that can helps save the lives of millions of people would never make it to the market. Dr. Langer states that more than half of his students end up staying in academia and that his passion has always been to help people heal. Though, as the article points out, by-products from such research can also result in commercial success in other realms, such as a hair thickening product created from experimenting with new materials in an attempt to treat ovarian cancer.

The line is a thin balance and programs like MEM and entrepreneurship can run into the same hurdles. The most effective way to train students in the realm of entrepreneurship is to allow them the most first-hand experience possible: starting a business. While programs like NUvention create one-of-a-kind scenarios by allowing students to face a board of advisors with industry connection to get realistic feedback, the underlying knowledge that some of the advisors could be potential investors is certainly relevant to students desire to produce a great product. However, if that product is something like a device that detects blockage in arteries (a past NUvention medical product), then is the potential for investment a bad thing? And if engineers are working on the most forward-thinking and creative projects while in school or while able to experiment without a corporate environment stifling they’re creativity, and isn’t it in the interest of the public to allow them every opportunity to bring those products to the market themselves?

As top universities struggle to maintain their endowments, using the resources at hand and showing their students that their research has worth while still in school might be the future of research university funding. The issue certainly requires an awareness and dialogue to make sure proper steps are taken to preserve ethical and academic boundaries as these fields continue to develop. Let us know what you think today.

MEM would like to extend a special thanks to our friends at Canteen Co for sending the NY Times article our way. 

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