Money comes calling at Selecta Biosciences

Selecta Biosciences wasn't out looking for money--but it found them nevertheless.

Just a little more than a year after hauling in a $15.1 million Series B round, the developer has raised a similar amount from some top-level biotech backers, with OrbiMed Advisers stepping in to lead.

"We weren't out trying to raise money," says Executive Chairman Bob Bratzler, noting that the last round came together a little more than a year ago. "There's a lot of interest in the vaccine space and after the progress we made in last year, that's why we were oversubscribed."

"People approached us and said, 'When are you going to raise money? We're interested in investing. We'd like to hear the story,'" says Bratzler. That's how OrbiMed came to the table, making a pitch to lead the round at a price point that Bratzler calls "attractive." Now Selecta has enough cash to get "well into 2012"--enough time to obtain proof-of- concept data on a lead program.

At a time when venture capital is still far harder to come by than many developers like to see, Selecta has quite a lot going for it.

In the last two years the developer has been setting up a synthetic vaccine particle platform, which has been assembled under the tutelage of Robert Langer--a prolific MIT scientist with a long string of biotech start-ups to his credit--working alongside Omid Farokhzad and Ulrich von Andrian of Harvard Medical School.

Langer worked with some familiar faces at Polaris Venture Partners and Flagship Ventures to get the Selecta ball rolling back in 2008. (NanoDimension and Leukon Investments joined the Selecta investment group early on.) Polaris and Flagship also joined forces to get Bind Biosciences--a 2008 Fierce 15 company--started a year ahead of Selecta.

The developers share some elements of the same basic science. Bind is using nanoparticle technology to more precisely deliver targeted therapies while Selecta is using self-assembled nanoparticles that can better resemble a virus, a process the scientists believe can trigger a more potent immune response. By specifically targeting antigen-presenting cells, Selecta believes it has a far better approach to triggering a virus-killing immune system rampage.

Over the past few years the vaccine field has been booming, but the recent pandemic helped illuminate some yawning gaps in the way that the world responds to a new virus. Selecta, like other upstart vaccine companies, has been rushing to fill that gap with better jabs that can be made far more efficiently.

"Viruses are nanoparticles and we take some lessons from nature on how it structures things and how the immune system developed over millions of years," says Lloyd Johnson, PhD, the vice president of R&D.

"We're first of a kind with respect to the way we make vaccine-targeted synthetic nanoparticles," Bratzler tells me. "No one else is doing this, and the number of unmet medical needs is very large. There's ample room for a number of players in the vaccine space."

And these players can move far more swiftly than developers operating in the small molecule arena.

"Vaccine development is somewhat unique as compared to conventional small molecule drug development," adds Bratzler. "You can get a good read early on regarding the clinical benefit. The therapeutic benefit can be seen early as well."

Selecta has grown significantly over the past year. Its workforce has gradually expanded to the low 20s, and there are plans for a few new hires in the year ahead as the biotech gets closer to a planned 2011 Phase I trial. "As we get closer to the clinic," explains Bratzler, "we'll expand our capabilities even more."

The business strategy is classic biotech, says Bratzler. Selecta intends to develop products on its own to demonstrate the value of the platform and then illustrate the breadth of what it can do through collaborations with pharma companies. And the more collaborations it can ink, the less new money it will have to raise from investors in the future.

Says Bratzler: "Ideally, we'd like to generate as much non-dilutive cash as we can."

Where this is all headed, of course, time, access to money and general development savvy will tell. For Bratzler, who ran Coley Pharmaceuticals and sold it to Pfizer in late 2007 for $164 million, it's a familiar position to be in.

"I've been acquired a couple of times in my career," says Bratzler. "You never plan on it. The idea here is to take it one step at a time, getting data on the platform, broadening the platform," and moving other programs into the clinic." - John Carroll (twitter | email)

More Editor's Corners:
Avila teams with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society on early-stage cancer trial
Investigators shape a workable public/private development model
Biotech VCs, Big Pharma stepping outside the comfort zone