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

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a hemophilia drug at Bayer, and business development at a systems biology company in Foster City, CA called Entelos. There was the time he worked from Brazil for a family-owned company in Italy. There was a time when he used military intelligence techniques he had learned to build a competitive intelligence consulting business. There was a four-month period as president at Israel-based Rosetta Genomics. And there was even more consulting, some of it unpaid, between jobs.

The big break came in 2005. One of his contacts from his military days, Steve Hoffman, had wound up at Palo Alto, CA-based Skyline Ventures. Skyline had invested in an early RNA interference company in San Francisco called Sirna Therapeutics. Sirna needed a senior business development officer, so Hoffman arranged for French to meet Sirna CEO Howard Robin.

The stars aligned for French in that job. RNAi pioneers Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the Nobel Prize for their work the following year. Suddenly, pharma companies just had to get into this new field, in which two biotech companies owned key intellectual property. French struck while the iron was hot, clinching deals with Allergan, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche. Then Sirna hit the mother lode, when Merck paid $1.1 billion to acquire the company in October 2006.

“It was the right place and the right time,” French says. “It’s always about that. Never underestimate luck.”

Getting bought by a Big Pharma that didn’t need another business development guy meant that French was soon looking for work again, although with some extra cash in his wallet and a more impressive resume. After a brief stint at Rosetta Genomics, where he says he “wasn’t a good fit,” he struck out on his own again, consulting to small biotechs. One was Bothell, WA-based Nastech Pharmaceutical. By the spring of 2008, the company decided to reinvent itself from being a business that made nasal spray versions of injectable drugs into an RNAi drug developer. French, coming off his experience with Sirna, was itching to take the next step in his career, running his own company. The board agreed to install him as CEO of the company, replacing Steven Quay. The company was also re-named MDRNA the same month, June 2008, to reflect its supposed new beginnings.

Expectations were low from the start. The stock was worth $1.27 a share on the day French took over, June 23, 2008. And once on the inside, he discovered things were in worse shape … Next Page »

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