An MIT Professor Wants To Bring Entrepreneurs Into The Lab

October 3, 2017
Ellie Kincaid, Forbes' Staff

The work of a scientist in a lab is like climbing a mountain, according to Ed Boyden, director of the brain technology group at the MIT Media Lab.

The scientist is focused on reaching the summit and answering her burning research question, but "halfway up the mountain are all sorts of ways we can spin out things to help other people," Boyden said at Forbes' 2017 Under 30 Summit in Boston.

He's unofficially brought entrepreneurs into the lab, people who could "notice something has immediate value" and act on it. He wants to formalize that into a sort of entrepreneurship residence program. The details, like how to deal with intellectual property, are still being worked out.

Boyden has experience spinning research applications out into companies. Among others, he's cofounded Expansion Technologies to commercialize a new technique of mapping the brain's structure that may also be useful in studying tumors.

Other scientist-entrepreneurs at the Under 30 Summit shared their experiences building companies from research discoveries.

"The biggest surprise for me has been that working in industry is a lot more patient-centric," said Alice Zhang, who founded Verge Genomics to use machine learning on genetic data to speed up drug discovery for neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS.

While an MD-PhD student, she saw a software algorithm she'd written turn up a promising drug candidate faster than the work of a postdoc in the lab who went about drug discovery the traditional way, testing thousands of compounds. She left graduate school three months before completing her degree.