AVI Biopharma Bolts from Portland to Seattle to Tap Biotech Talent

Xconomy Seattle — 

AVI Biopharma, the developer of RNA-based drugs, is moving its headquarters and part of its scientific operations north a couple hundred miles from Portland, OR, to Bothell, WA, in an effort to mine the Seattle area’s bigger biotech talent pool.

The company, which has about 85 total employees, plans to keep its biodefense research and manufacturing facility in Corvallis, OR, while moving executive offices, administration, discovery research, chemistry, clinical and regulatory operations to new offices in Bothell, CEO Les Hudson told Xconomy yesterday in an exclusive interview. AVI plans to move into its new 19,000-square-foot office and lab space in August.

AVI (NASDAQ: AVII) is one of the oldest companies in biotech, having sputtered around since 1980 without ever developing an FDA-approved drug, burning through more than $250 million in investor cash at last count, and never becoming profitable, as I pointed out in this profile back in September. But the company has gotten some new life lately, as it has found creative new sources of capital, and has more than tripled its stock price this year from 66 cents to $2.29 at yesterday’s close. Since Hudson joined in February 2008, he has pushed forward its technology for precisely blocking specific strands of RNA as a new mode of developing drugs. AVI is using this science to work on experimental treatments for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and against really dangerous potential bioterrorist agents that conventional drugs can’t stop—Ebola and Marburg virus.

All of these programs are going to require skilled, and experienced people to take forward, and Hudson says it will be easier to recruit them to Seattle than to Portland, where AVI is one of the very few biotech games in town.

“It’s important for us to be in Seattle because the competitive environment in life sciences is important to the tone and productivity of a company, and, if you’re looking to recruit someone, it’s important to be in a labor pool of significant size like there is in Seattle,” Hudson says.

AVI considered another site on the East Coast, but rejected that because of the time zone difference with Corvallis. It also considered sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hudson says. I also wondered if Christopher Henney may have helped make the decision. He’s the chairman of AVI Biopharma, and a Seattleite who happens to have co-founded the Northwest’s three most successful biotech companies of the past 30 years—Immunex, Icos, and Dendreon. (Hudson laughed at this suggestion, although he did note that Henney was AVI chairman when this decision was made.)

No matter how the decision was made, the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, the biotech industry trade group, cheered the move. “The company’s move to our region is yet another example of the area’s ability to attract top caliber talent and connect growing companies with the resources they need to thrive,” said WBBA president Chris Rivera in a statement.

Now that AVI is moving to new digs, it will be intriguing to see whether it can continue building on the momentum it has gotten this year. The company has shown enough promise with its new management and revamped business model that it was able to raise $16.5 million from institutional investors back in January—when hardly anybody in biotech could scrape up a dime. Since then, it has produced a steady stream of small, but creative, financings to fatten its balance sheet.

This week, it pulled in $1.2 million for its muscular dystrophy program from a U.K.-based patient advocacy group, not long after it got $3 million from a U.S.-based patient advocate, and part of a $2.5 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense. When swine flu hit the headlines, it pounced, picking up another U.S. defense contract worth as much as $5.1 million. AVI is also still awaiting word on a much bigger deal, a contract worth as much as $50 million, from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop treatments for Ebola and Marburg virus.

Lest anyone worry, even though AVI works on biodefense drugs, there’s no chance that killer bugs will get out into the local Seattle air and cause mass panic. The people who wear those spacesuit-style outfits to handle those pathogens, in ultra-secure Biosafety Level 4 facilities, are at a site run by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) on the East Coast, Hudson says.

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