A passion for innovation and education
Leon Sandler reflects on 18 years of helping MIT faculty research move from lab to market
“I like interacting with people and building relationships, learning about a wide range of topics, and intellectual stimulation and challenge. This job has provided all of them.”
By Andromeda Blumenau
Imagine you were planning a trek across Death Valley. Would you be better off setting out on foot with just a bottle of water in your hand, or in a vehicle loaded with supplies and a full tank of gas?
That’s one of the metaphors Leon Sandler uses to describe the work of the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation – giving MIT researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs the tools they need to successfully spin out their technologies and have an impact on the greater world.
As executive director of the center, Sandler has been at the heart of helping teams pack those figurative vehicles. Now, after 18 years of guiding hundreds of MIT researchers, he is retiring from the role.
“I have had great fun, learned a lot, and met wonderful and interesting people,” Sandler says. “Interacting with MIT faculty and students and watching them learn and grow has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”
The Deshpande Center was founded in 2002 to support faculty as they move their research out of the lab. Its motto, “From innovation to impact,” describes the center itself as well as its mission. Some 550 researchers have benefitted from the center’s program, which provides funding and mentoring to projects that have the potential to spin out. More than 50 of those projects have gone on to become startup companies.
“Those companies have made a difference in a wide array of areas from healthcare to energy to environment to communications,” Sandler says.
For example: There’s Taris Bio, which developed a drug delivery platform to treat bladder cancer and sold it to Johnson & Johnson. Early results from clinical trials appear promising, and on Dec. 5, the FDA designated it as a Breakthrough Device.
There’s Eta Devices, which early in 2023 sold its handset chip business to Apple-supplier Murata, poising the power-saving technology to be in future iPhone models.
Or there’s the rapidly expanding Gradiant, which 10 years after its founding is cleaning wastewater in more than 33 countries. Last spring it became the first cleantech startup to be valued at $1 billion.
Faculty director Angela Koehler, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research, is herself a former grantee, having spun out a novel cancer therapy into Kronos Bio with help from Sandler and the center. He has also spoken to her undergraduate courses over the years, and his dedication to educating others stands out, she says.
“He is passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship and genuinely cares about both finding the right marketplace for technologies while educating the next generation,” Koehler says. “My colleagues really respect Leon as an educator.”
“I just think that Leon is one of the most delightful, funny, and genuine characters that I have come across… He also knows how to throw a good party!”
Setting a mission
Back in 2006, Sandler didn’t expect to stay with the Deshpande Center for long. A startup CEO with a background in chemical engineering, he had been helping alumni through MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. When he learned Deshpande was seeking its second executive director, he thought it would be interesting work for a couple of years.
But before long he was hooked, and a couple of years turned into 18.
“I like interacting with people and building relationships, learning about a wide range of topics, and intellectual stimulation and challenge. This job has provided all of them,” Sandler says. “The people and relationships – very bright, very interesting people – I learn from all of them.”
The education works both ways. Sandler came to the Deshpande Center with a strong resume including senior management positions at Texas Instruments, Eastman Kodak and Digital Equipment before turning to startups and business consulting. He willingly shares his experiences and lessons learned.
Still, he is an engineer first. Sandler often advises anyone starting a new venture — project teams, visitors, colleagues – to start from the essentials. “The question is: What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” he will often say.
That was in essence the first question he asked upon joining the center, determining the mission and core customer base. The answer: advancing MIT research to the point where it could spin out of MIT, attract outside funding, and have an impact on the world.
Unlike other innovation and entrepreneurship programs on campus that guide students, the Deshpande Center focuses on serving faculty members, along with their graduate and postdoc research teams. It accomplishes this by providing grants, but more importantly, mentoring to help projects hoping to form startups.
“We also discovered that we have a secondary mission of educating faculty and their graduate students on how to commercialize MIT research. They learn by doing,” says Sandler.
A critical part of the Deshpande Center’s success is its corps of volunteer mentors. These mentors, known as Catalysts, are as diverse in their technical and industry expertise as the projects that come through the center.
Roughly 25 percent of the projects supported by the center have turned into startups so far, with more on the horizon. Others have made an impact through licensing to existing companies. While some technologies don’t spin out, the researchers still make positive strides.
“The teams all learn a tremendous amount about the process and about markets and customers. Some have come back to the Deshpande Center for subsequent projects that have spun out, and others have spun out new research without coming back to us,” Sandler says.
Reflecting on the Deshpande Center’s success over the years, Sandler points to the focus on that core mission and dedication to faculty. Although the staff has historically been small, just three or four people, with the aid of the outstanding mentor corps the center has had a huge impact.
Above all, the relationships forged along the way have been the most satisfying aspect of the job, Sandler says. That includes faculty, mentors, students, people in different industries or from around the globe seeking to learn more about the center. And after more than 800 grantee project update meetings, he can truly be said to have drunk from the proverbial MIT firehose.
“It’s been very intellectually stimulating, and I learned so much about so many areas from all the experts, continuously learning for 18 years,” says Sandler.
Even as he prepares for retirement, Sandler is continuing to educate. Over the next few months he will be sticking around the center in an advisory role to help the next executive director into the role.
Sandler is packing a less-figurative vehicle now, loading his own car up with golf clubs and hiking gear. He’s looking forward to spending more time outdoors.
He also offers general advice for faculty, staff and students: Keep learning.
“Read very broadly, well outside of your domain of expertise and comfort zone, and continue to learn,” Sandler advises. “Think critically and apply common sense, yet be open to think ‘out of the box’ and try new approaches.
“Time is your scarcest asset. Spend it on what is meaningful to you. Care about people and behave decently – it will make you feel a lot better.”