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

12/20/10Follow @xconomy

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variations on their ticker symbol “MRNA.” After passing on something that they say sounded like an underwear line from Target (Merona), they settled on Marina Biotech. “Marina was a word everybody understood. We had operations in Puget Sound and Boston Harbor. We thought it worked well for the company,” French says.

Not everyone was amused. Seattle-based Mirina, a startup hatched at Accelerator, filed a federal trademark infringement suit after asking the new Marina to stop using a name that sounded identical and created confusion in the market. There’s nothing much new to report on this case at the moment, as both companies have dug in their heels. “We think there’s plenty of room for everybody to live happily ever after here. I’m not sure why it’s such an issue,” French says.

The new Marina Biotech, while stronger than before, is still in what any reasonable observer would call a pretty weak position. It has just enough cash to operate until the end of March, French says. He’s still striving to put together a truly lucrative partnership, in which big companies no longer kick the tires but really shell out for unimpeded access to bring the technology in-house. This can’t be easy, given that one of French’s benefactors, Roche, recently said it was dropping all RNAi work as part of global budget cuts.

Yet Marina somehow has continued to hire people, hiring scientists, even while it has never had more than six months of cash at any one time. I couldn’t help but ask French how he manages to look someone in the eye and hire them, knowing that he can’t say the company will have enough cash to operate more than four months.

“You go back to the philosophy, you can’t save yourself to success,” French says. “You have to generate data. We are cautious about what we do. We aren’t extravagant, but we need to produce data and research that will drive deals and support our pipeline.”

Peter Garcia, the company’s chief financial officer, elaborated that the strategic plan assumes that they’ll somehow find a way to raise more money when they need it. Even though almost nobody on the outside expects much, they expect a lot.

“I had the pleasure of working with George Rathmann,” Garcia says, referring to the legendary former CEO of Amgen and Icos. “Everyone knows the Amgen story, but they don’t know all the dirty details. It’s not dissimilar to what Michael has had to go through. It’s not dissimilar to what Sirna had to go through during certain periods of time. Everybody sees the end result. But if George [Rathmann] would have tried to make his cash last three more months, maybe they wouldn’t have made Epogen.”

I can hear readers scoffing now, because comparing any biotech entrepreneur to Rathmann is sort of like comparing a plucky city councilman to Abraham Lincoln. French is more used to hearing sarcasm and backhanded compliments. “People like to run around and say ‘Congratulations, you are still alive after two years.’ I appreciate the sentiment, but we’re not done yet,” he says.

French insists that he believes in the technology, the people at his company, and his own ability to make things happen when the pressure is on. It’s not as much pressure as there is on a battlefield, but he sees similarities between military situations and those in business. In this case, if Marina survives, it has a chance to develop a new pharmaceutical product that could someday help people.

“We never gave up. Never say die,” French says. “That’s the reason we’re still here.”

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