Two Boston-area startups—both of which emanated from the lab of MIT bioengineer and entrepreneur Bob Langer—announced today that they secured $25 million a piece in funding from Rusnano, a $10 billion Russian Federation fund that supports nanotechnology startups. The money went to Watertown, MA-based Selecta Biosciences and Cambridge, MA-based BIND Biosciences. Each company also added $22.25 million from current and new investors. Total it all up and it’s a huge haul: $94.5 million in the two companies combined.
Rusnano was founded in March of this year and is owned by the Government of the Russian Federation. The organization’s mission is to co-invest in nanotech projects that it believes will offer substantial economic and social benefits to Russia. As part of the deal, BIND and Selecta will each establish subsidiaries in Moscow. “They’ll be able to leverage the scientific and technical expertise, the clinical resources, and even the manufacturing resources in Russia,” says Noubar Afeyan, CEO of Flagship Ventures, which was a founding investor in both BIND and Selecta. “We see it as a multi-pronged opportunity.”
The seeds for the Rusnano deal were planted about three years ago, when Afeyan met some of the professionals who would ultimately come to manage the Russian fund. At the time, Afeyan says, he was serving on the board of the Skolkovo School of Management in Moscow. He arranged for his Russian contacts to tour Langer’s lab at MIT, as well as other institutions working on nanotechnology. “They were impressed with the potential of nano-medicine, especially in cancer,” Afeyan says.
The nanotechnology at the heart of this deal originated at labs directed by Langer and by Omid Farokhzad, a professor at Harvard Medical School. BIND and Selecta are pursuing different applications for the invention—nanoparticles that can hone in on specific targets in the human body and deliver drugs to them withoutaffecting surrounding tissues. Selecta is developing prophylactic, therapeutic, and “antigen-specific tolerogenic vaccines,” which employ nanoparticles that travel directly to the lymph nodes, and then deliver vaccines that halt disease-causing autoimmune responses. BIND’s nanoparticles, by contrast, are designed to deliver cancer-fighting medicines directly to tumors.
Selecta’s CEO, Werner Cautreels, knows first-hand the benefits of being in Russia. In his previous role as the CEO of Belgium-based Solvay Pharmaceuticals (now owned by Abbott Laboratories), he built a large Russian subsidiary, he says. “We did a survey of where we should be in R&D, and we came to the conclusion that Russia would give us the best access to good scientists and clinical experience,” he says. Cautreels says that setting up a Selecta subsidiary in Russia will give the startup access to new capabilities “so we can accelerate our R&D and clinical development.”
Selecta’s lead program is not a traditional vaccine meant to prevent disease, but rather one that’s designed to help smokers quit the habit. The vaccine, SEL-068 contains nanoparticles that trap nicotine, which prevents it from hitting the dopamine-releasing receptors in the brain that cause people to become addicted to cigarettes. “About 20 percent of people in the U.S. smoke, but in Russia it’s more than 50 percent,” Cautreels says. “There is a high level of awareness in that country of the impact on public health.” Selecta is also working on a vaccine against Type 1 diabetes, which is partially funded by a grant it received earlier this year from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
For BIND, the Russian funding will fuel research on a class of drugs it calls Accurins. These nanoparticle-based medicines are designed to go straight to the site of the disease, which in the case of the startup’s lead drug candidate, BIND-014, is cancer. BIND-014’s nanoparticles encapsulate a well-known chemo drug, docetaxel, and deliver it straight to tumor cells, while avoiding surrounding, healthy tissue. BIND’s development team hopes their drug-delivery system will drastically reduce nausea and other debilitating side effects of standard cancer treatments. “What we’ve shown in animal studies is we can give 20 times more to the tumor than you can get with conventional drugs,” says BIND’s CEO Scott Minick. “If you give a dose of docetaxel, literally in minutes it is distributed very broadly throughout the body. If you dose with BIND-014, you increase the efficacy and decrease the toxicity.”
Minick says BIND has already started to form a scientific advisory board of leading nanotechnology and chemical engineering experts in Russia. He’s not ready to name them except to say, “These guys are of the same stature in Russia as Bob Langer is in the U.S.” He adds that BIND intends to run “a significant part” of its global clinical trials in Russia. “An area that’s very important in biotech is the ability to do high-quality clinical trials, and what we’ve found is that Russia is one of the better places to do those,” he says. “Russia is above average in terms of its capabilities in basic R&D and clinical development.”
BIND is still defining which tumor types it will focus on in its development plan for BIND-014—a task that will be enhanced by the Rusnano investment, Minick says. The funding will also allow the company to move a second drug candidate into clinical trials quickly, he adds. The company is also looking into applying the nanotechnology to other conditions, such as inflammatory diseases and cardiovascular ailments. When Minick met with Xconomy in Boston in September, he mentioned that the startup’s ability to commercialize the nanoparticle technology was limited only by the balance sheet. “I told you if we had infinite resources we could bring a significant number of drugs into clinical trials,” he recalls. “This enables us to move aggressively. It significantly enhances our capacity.”
BIND previously raised $29.5 million from Flagship, Polaris Venture Partners, ARCH Venture Partners, and nanotechnology-focused venture firm NanoDimension. Selecta had raised more than $30 million from Polaris and Flagship, as well as OrbiMed Advisors, NanoDimension, and Leukon Investments.
Afeyan says prior to these investments, Rusnano’s portfolio was mostly concentrated on companies working in the non-medical side of nanotechnology, ranging from LED technology to advances in television. “This is among their earliest involvement in nano-medicine,” he says. “Russia has the financial resources to awaken the commercial potential of these technologies. We can leverage that.”
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