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AVI Biopharma CEO Chris Garabedian Seeks to Avoid Quick Flip, Build Enduring Drug Company

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the marketing plan for adefovir (Hepsera) for hepatitis B. But he was really more drawn to the drive and focus of the management team—many of whom are still there today. “They had a big vision for the future, and wanted to be independent,” Garabedian says.

The theme of independence came up over and over throughout my conversation with Garabedian. A little over a year into his stint at Gilead, Garabedian took a “detour” to join COR Therapeutics in its marketing department, but he moved back to Gilead after a little more than a year when he saw that COR wasn’t interested in being independent (it was later acquired to Millennium Pharmaceuticals).

At Gilead, Garabedian climbed through the ranks in various business roles such as business development, marketing, and medical affairs. Garabedian told me a few war stories with gusto, and the confidence of a born salesman. He boasted about how Gilead beat its rival GlaxoSmithKline in one head-to-head HIV marketing competition, beating the bigger rival 3-to-1 in market share, even though his team had half the marketing budget.

As he progressed at Gilead and later Celgene, Garabedian says he’s had CEO opportunities, and passed them up. “I had been approached for quick flips. I’ve had people say, ‘Hey Chris, come here, do a deal, sell the company, earn a few million bucks. Does that appeal to you?’ No, I wasn’t interested.”

AVI, at first glance, might look like a quick flip story. CEO Les Hudson was ousted by the board back in April 2010, and three directors soon exited the picture as well. It has a technology for making drugs that specifically shut down certain biological processes at the level of RNA, which theoretically can be used against a wide variety of diseases. Garabedian was skeptical at first, and wasn’t really a believer in the company’s technology for making RNA-based drugs. But Haywood, the company’s largest shareholder, proved persuasive.

“[Haywood] connected me with people who have looked and studied the RNA space very closely. They’d say ‘the chemistry is real, we’ve just had this revolving-door management, nobody had the right strategy, nobody knows what to do with this, they haven’t really gone out to pharma to try to pitch it and sell it and do deals. We’re sitting on a gold mine,” Garabedian says.

I gave him an incredulous look. “I was like anybody else who heard this, skeptical. Are you serious? How come nobody else knows about this? It sounds too good to be true,” Garabedian says.

But after doing his diligence, Garabedian agreed to take one of the open board seats last June. Soon he was put to work on a committee to look for AVI’s next CEO.

Being on the board, Garabedian says, opened his eyes to how AVI’s chemists, years ago, developed a novel chemical approach for delivering RNA-based therapies that addressed some of the delivery limitations that early antisense companies, like Carlsbad, CA-based Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) encountered years ago, and which RNA interference companies are dealing with today.

What he really liked was that AVI’s compounds, known as morpholinos, have been shown to … Next Page »

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  • A good buddy of mine was a grandson of the Ravenscroft family. (Some of the Abbott family had relatives in Hardin County, IL.) I used to go swimming in their pool at the Biltmore Estates in Phoenix. My uncle, a very successful operator nursed that stock for years.
    I hope history repeats itseld in the success of AVII.