How Michael French, a Military Brat Turned Dealmaker, Kept Marina Biotech Alive

Xconomy Seattle — 

Not once has J. Michael French scraped together more than six months of operating cash for his company since he became CEO in June 2008. More than once, almost any rational person would have concluded bankruptcy was imminent.

Yet 30 months have come and gone and French’s company, Bothell, WA-based Marina Biotech (NASDAQ: MRNA), is still hanging on. It has clinched just enough deals, and captured just enough financing to keep the doors open. At last count, it still had 56 people on the payroll. Even though investors have lost patience with its scientifically edgy concept of RNA interference, French, a military brat turned pharma dealmaker, insists it’s only a matter of time before he strikes that next big deal that will prove his never-say-die approach was worth it.

“The reason we are still alive is we have men and women out there in the lab doing great science,” French says. “When I look at myself, I see tenacity. That’s the only thing I bring to the table in high volume.”

Tenacity is certainly one of the personality traits it takes to keep on plowing ahead in what is just about the highest-risk, highest-reward industry on the planet. Despite all the heralded advances in biology, biotech is still a business where nine out of every 10 drugs fail after they were considered good enough for human testing. It still usually takes a decade or more of effort, and hundreds of millions of dollars, just to find out if your hypothesis for a novel new drug is strong enough to pass muster with the FDA and become a marketed product. Anyone who dares to think they can do this had better have a combination of book smarts, street smarts, determination, charisma, an almost maniacal self-confidence, and a steeliness to make it through the hard times when the whole world believes you’re wrong.

Most investors—and this journalist, too—wrote off French and his company a long time ago. I figured it was one of the weak members of the herd that would get devoured during the Great Recession. But when that didn’t happen—and when Marina Biotech acquired Cambridge, MA-based Cequent Pharmaceuticals back in July—I figured it might be time for me to actually go out and learn a bit about this character Michael French who won’t give up.

Michael French

Michael French

“Michael has done a good job navigating his company’s survival in tough times,” says John Maraganore, the CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, and a competitor to Marina Biotech.

French, 51, grew up as the oldest son of a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army. French and his two younger sisters, like kids in many military families, moved around a lot growing up. When he got his first CEO gig at Marina Biotech (then called MDRNA) it was the 35th time in his life that he’d moved.

Growing up, French says he wanted to become an astronaut. He went to college at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he studied aerospace engineering. He strived for the astronaut dream all through his 20s, getting a master’s in physiology and biophysics from Georgetown University partly because it would help him get the advanced education needed to enter the program. He finally gave up the astronaut dream after he was called to active Army duty during the first Persian Gulf War in 1990.

When it was time to go back to civilian life, he put his newfound advanced degree to work in a series of jobs where it could be of practical use—at pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

Listening to French talk about his career arc is dizzying at times. His curriculum vitae (which you can read here) lists 22 jobs since 1981, spanning both his military and business careers. The experience includes a stint handling marketing of … Next Page »

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