AVI Biopharma CEO Chris Garabedian Seeks to Avoid Quick Flip, Build Enduring Drug Company
Friends wondered, why leave a job as an up-and-coming VP of corporate strategy at a biotech powerhouse like Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) to run an obscure little company like AVI Biopharma (NASDAQ: AVII)? AVI was built on a technology, antisense drugs, that few people in the industry believe in. The company’s track record is brutal—30 years spent on R&D with no FDA-approved drug to show for it. There was a leadership void, since a shareholder rebellion led to the ouster of the previous CEO. And, with labs in Corvallis, OR and headquarters in Bothell, WA, it’s a long way off the beaten path for most biotech industry executives and investors.
Garabedian, 44, admits he was skeptical at first. But when encouraged to take a look a year ago by the company’s largest investor, George Haywood, he looked. And the more Garabedian studied, the more he started to think it could be a classic diamond in the rough. It’s a bold, brash thing to say, but Garabedian told me a few weeks ago that the AVI of today reminds him of the 1990s version of Foster City, CA-based Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) when it was worth about $500 million, long before it went on to become the world’s largest maker of HIV drugs, worth $32 billion today. Garabedian spent most of eight years in various roles at Gilead during its boom years, before joining another biotech success story in Celgene. Now he says it’s time to apply what he learned in those places.
“Those are experiences at Gilead and Celgene that shaped me, and helped me know what it takes to grow a breakout biotech,” Garabedian says. “I always felt that if I saw another opportunity to do that at another company, that’s something I could be excited about.”
AVI, he says, is the place. There’s certainly room to grow. The stock closed yesterday at $1.55 a share, and the company has a little more than 110 employees, and a market valuation of about $210 million.
“We could make this a breakout biotech. It will take some time. It’s not going to happen in a year,” Garabedian says. “But I think this could be a company valued in the multi-billions in the next several years.”
Before diving into Garabedian’s blueprint for how he intends to lead AVI to that lofty perch, I wanted to know a little more about him. Unlike a lot of biotech CEOs, he never went on to get an MD, a PhD, or an MBA degree. He got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in marketing, and worked his way up in biotech through various marketing-related roles.
He did some consulting in his first real job out of college for a couple years. He says he “got the biotech itch” while consulting in the early ’90s. He caught on full time with Abbott Laboratories, where he worked on marketing, brand management, and product development in various parts of Abbott’s business in cardiovascular medicine and neurology, he says. “I started to learn how to work with R&D teams,” on things like when to hit the brakes on a new drug development program, when to press on the gas, and what it takes to get the ultimate prize—FDA approval to sell your new drug.
Garabedian’s first experience in a small, nimble biotech came in 1997 as a senior director of marketing for Gilead. He was brought in initially to help craft … Next Page »