Genocea Biosciences Closes $23M Series A, Adds New CEO Bakali

Xconomy Boston — 

Genocea Biosciences, a Cambridge, MA-based startup built around rapid vaccine discovery technology licensed from Harvard Medical School, says it has raised $23 million in a Series A round of financing and named biotech industry veteran Staph Leavenworth Bakali as its CEO.

The firm’s first round was led by SR One, the venture arm of London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, and included new investors Auriga Partners, Cycad Group, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities. Its early backers—Lux Capital Management, Polaris Venture Partners, and Morningside Ventures—contributed to the round as well. Robert Paull, founding CEO of Genocea and managing general partner at Lux, will remain on the board of directors with Bakali taking over as chief executive.

Bakali, who became executive director of Genocea last summer, appears to have a knack for leading firms that get acquired for large sums. He was chief operating officer at vaccine developers ID Biomedical, of Vancouver, and PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, based in Oxford, U.K.—GSK acquired the firms for $1.4 billion and $930 million, respectively. (Note that GSK is the main backer in Genocea’s first round of venture funding.)

The vaccine market has been white hot in recent years, with market growth driven by blockbuster products such as Whitehouse Station, NJ-based drug powerhouse Merck’s human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil. The global sales of vaccines last year were an estimated $20 billion and expected to grow by 10 percent annually through 2013, according the Wellesley, MA-based market researcher BCC Research.

Genocea, founded in 2006, has a vaccine-discovery technology that quickly identifies which antigens in a simulated biological environment are able to trigger an immune response. The firm has already discovered antigens it is developing as vaccines for chlamydia and pneumonia, among other undisclosed illnesses. The science behind the discovery technology was initially discovered in the lab of Darren Higgins, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School. Higgins serves on the scientific advisory board of the startup.