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Former Solvay Pharma Chief Takes Lead Role at Startup Selecta Biosciences

Xconomy Boston — 

A former pharmaceutical chief has taken the top job at Watertown, MA-based biotech startup Selecta Biosciences, a developer of nanoparticle vaccine technology. Werner Cautreels began work as chief executive of the startup in recent weeks, just months after leading one of the larger acquisition deals in the pharma industry this year.

At the same time, Selecta says it won a $3 million grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Drug Abuse to research an advanced nicotine vaccine for people addicted to cigarettes (more on that below). The grant builds on the $33 million the two-year-old startup has raised from such venture investors as Flagship Ventures, Leukon Investments, NanoDimension, OrbiMed Advisors, and Polaris Venture Partners.

Cautreels, 57, was previously the CEO of Belgium-based Solvay Pharmaceuticals, until shortly after health products giant Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) bought his company for $6.6 billion in February. His new job is a switch from a big company with lots of products and resources to a 25-employee outfit in pre-clinical development. But the startup’s new chief says there are perks to being at a young company versus an older one.

“The change is rather positive,” Cautreels says. It’s “more dynamic, less red tape, more direct contact with people.”

Bob Bratzler, who had served as executive chairman of Selecta since its founding in 2008, resigned from that post several months ago, according to the company. The firm did not have a CEO before Cautreels.

A chemist by training, Cautreels should feel right at home in Selecta’s labs. The startup is developing polymer nanoparticle vaccines, which are designed to self-assemble at low cost in large industrial-scale batches, co-founder and MIT chemist Bob Langer told Xconomy in April. With its synthetic process, the startup can make nanoparticles of the same size and shape of viruses.

Vaccines are often made with deactivated viruses that cause the immune system to mount defenses before the real foreign invaders come along. Selecta (as its name suggests) believes it has some additional advantages over previous vaccines, because the firm has the ability to assemble vaccines to selectively target a subset of white blood cells called antigen-presenting cells. This is intended to let the firm’s vaccines elicit powerful immune responses while limiting unintended side effects, according to its website.

Selecta says it can develop vaccines for infectious diseases as well as non-infectious conditions.

Cautreels has some experience in the vaccine business. Solvay, for one, is a big producer of seasonal flu vaccine that is sold under its Influvac brand. In 2008, Solvay took over Innogenetics, a European developer of vaccines, where Cautreels had been on the board of directors since 1999. During his more than 25-year career in the pharma industry, he has been head of global R&D for Solvay and worked for French drugmaker Sanofi (now Sanofi-Aventis), Sterling-Winthrop, and Nycomed-Amersham.

Cautreels has also got some previous connections to the Boston area. He did an executive training program at Harvard Business School. And from 1999 to 2006, he was a director of the Woburn, MA-based cancer drug developer ArQule (NASDAQ:ARQL). Though a native of Belgium, he says he is a U.S. citizen and came to this country in the late-1980s.

While Selecta has been secretive about the exact drugs it plans to develop, the company is now touting a potential nicotine vaccine in its pipeline. Cautreels says that the nicotine vaccine is one of the firm’s leading product candidates, and he aims to enter at least one of those contenders into clinical trials in 2011. The point of the firm’s nicotine vaccine would be to spur an immune reaction against addictive nicotine to reduce a smoker’s dependence on it.

In the meantime, Cautreels says that one of his top priorities as chief executive will be to bring in Selecta’s first partnership with a larger drug company. To do that, he’ll now be courting the types of large drugmakers at which he spent most of his career.