Xconomist of the Week: Bob Langer’s Advice for Turning Foundation and Government Money into Startup Success

9/1/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Yesterday, Selecta Biosciences—one of many companies founded by MIT professor and entrepreneur Bob Langer—announced that it had received a subcontract from the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to develop a vaccine against malaria. The financial details weren’t released, but the initiative is part of a $76.5 million contract SAIC has with the National Institutes of Health.

Like many of Langer’s creations, Selecta has made the most of federal funding and grants from disease foundations. In June, the Watertown, MA-based company received a grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to apply its vaccine technology to Type 1 diabetes. Selecta has raised $30 million in venture capital, but the grant money has been equally vital to advancing the technology, Langer says. “What I want when we create a technology in our laboratory is to see it help as many people as possible,” Langer says. That matches the mission of the grant-givers, he says, which is “to solve problems any way they can.” Another advantage, of course, is that grant money is non-dilutive to shareholders.

Langer knows a thing or two about applying for grants. In his 30 years as a scientist and entrepreneur he estimates he has founded about 24 companies. He has 800 patents issued or pending. He can’t estimate how much grant money he’s won over his career, except to say “It’s a lot.” And he believes every entrepreneur should lean heavily on grants. “Grant money is critical in the early stages,” he says. “It basically enables companies to get off the ground.”

Selecta is developing “antigen-specific vaccines,” which are designed to elicit different types of immune responses. The vaccines are made of synthetic nanoparticles. Some activate the immune system, while others induce immune tolerance to disease, without damaging cells that keep people’s immune systems intact. The NAIC contract is geared towards developing a vaccine particle that can fight malaria.

Selecta isn’t the only Langer company that has scored grants. Cambridge, MA-based Seventh Sense Biosystems received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation … Next Page »

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