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Norrie Russell on Joining Invitrogen as New VP for Functional Genomics

Invitrogen announced last week that Norrie Russell, former president and CEO of Aviva Bioscience, has joined Carlsbad, Calif.-based company as vice president and general manager of its functional genomics strategic business unit. He will manage Invitrogen’s genomics, proteomics, and RNAi efforts and will report to Daryl Faulkner, senior vice president and general manager, strategic business units.

Russell, 52, joins Invitrogen after heading startup Aviva Biosciences since 2002, and before that, serving as president of Lynx Therapeutics since 1999. Russell previously was global head of biological science and technology for AstraZeneca, where he pioneered the company’s efforts in applying genomics and genetics to drug-discovery research and development process.

BioCommerce Week on Tuesday spoke with Russell to learn about his new position.

How did you get the job and what attracted you to it?

I met with Greg Lucier, the CEO at Invitrogen, and he gave me an update about what Invitrogen had been doing over the last couple of years. It’s pretty awesome what Invitrogen has developed, acquired and assembled over the last couple of years in terms of the capabilities that could impact the entire drug-discovery process, from beginning to end, the value chain that most people talk about. He basically said that Invitrogen would like someone with depth of technical background and operational experience in the pharma industry. I did my own due diligence on the company and the people I would be working with, and them taking the same approach to hiring senior staff. It was an easy decision. I was very impressed with what Invitrogen has done. We started talking in September and I started working in the beginning of November

What do you bring to the table?

I was at Zeneca and AstraZeneca for 20 years in senior management positions in drug-discovery. My last position at AstraZeneca after the merger of Astra and Zeneca was as global head of biological science and technology. I have spent many years evaluating biotechnology companies and new technologies and introducing them into the drug-discovery process at Zeneca and AstraZeneca, essentially establishing ‘modern drug discovery’ at AstraZeneca. I have been involved directly and indirectly in probably all the components that make up biotechnology through gene cloning, gene acquisition, gene expression, cell-based screening, antibodies, transgenics, and protein production. It has been a very broad and yet surprisingly deep technical background. At AstraZeneca, it was great to be at forefront of introducing all the processes and thought processes into drug discovery. It was a great privilege to be part of that.

When you went to Lynx and Aviva, you got great experience in operations.

I was very attracted to the fast-moving and decisive biotech industry. Over the years, you learn to face and deal with all the issues that biotech companies encounter

And, so now you go to a much larger organization.

The attraction for me about Invitrogen is that it is very dynamic. Over the last two years, this new senior management team has introduced a dynamic attitude and state of mind, it is very fast moving and success breeds success. It’s a delight to be working here, for sure.

How does your unit operate?

Invitrogen has two basic divisions — biodiscovery and bioproduction. Across these two basic divisions, there are strategic business units. My responsibility is for the strategic business unit that is called functional genomics. It embraces all the products in the area of genomics, proteomics, and gene regulation, which is basically RNAi.

How do you see the role of this unit?

It is the application of common sense, we have a wealth of products in the area and clearly we need to keep the hopper filled with new product introductions, and evaluating new technologies. Right now, we have a really impressive stream of new product introductions planned for next year and the following year to keep our product lines fresh and attractive.

The company moves quickly. With your knowledge, touching some of the important technologies in the genomics area, can Invitrogen be an innovator?

Totally, we have a very substantial R&D department. That is what Invitrogen does: it innovates. The capabilities are here to innovate and be ahead of the technology curve.

At what point does a technology become commercially viable, especially in your area?

An implicit part of the job is to drive innovation in-house and to be aware of innovation out of house.

How will you do your job?

Driving the growth of the functional genomics business, through organic growth and the introduction of new products over the course of the year. And also looking at, since we have such an awesome set of capabilities, driving the synergies of these capabilities to generate attractive commercial opportunities along the value chain.

What is functional genomics?

Five or six years ago, I was chairing a conference in London, entitled Functional Genomics, at the time that the term was surfacing into common parlance. During the opening session, the first question was: What is functional genomics? I thought for the moment and said functional genomics is really modern biology. Because now we have the capability to look at mechanisms of molecular physiology at the molecular level, and that embraces all of genomics and proteomics.

Now there are even newer definitions of modern biology, involving massive scale and integration.

Systems biology is the next generation of thinking, which is fine. We now have the tools to look in a more holistic way at biology, but at the molecular level. Bringing all the insights at the molecular level together is perhaps what people now describe as systems biology.

Do you like having this panoply of technologies to work with, as opposed to the single platforms at Lynx and Aviva?

It’s awesome. It’s a tool kit and it’s tremendous. Here at Invitrogen, the tools, the capabilities, the reagents, the solutions are really quite amazing.

What are the commercial challenges?

I think driving the synergies, assembling the tool kits to accelerate drug discovery and biological research. I think we have them at Invitrogen now and we have to pull them together in ways that make commercial sense and create value for our customers through acceleration of their research.

How do you see pharma and biotech spending?

I think they are casting the net wider now to look for workflow solutions that will accelerate their research and improve their productivity.

What is the value proposition?

Accelerating their research.

At a cost?

Well, cost is cost. Pharma spends a lot of money on its research and I think we can offer efficiencies, quality, reduced time scale.

Is there a priority for adding to the Invitrogen toolkit?

Our intention is to look at putting together custom toolkits that provide solutions in particular disease areas or biological pathways.

What is your view about the research market?

The research market is a healthy market and a growing one. I don’t think there are any obstacles to progress an expansion of that marketplace.

Aviva was funded from Asia, so I would imagine you got an insight into the Asian market. Is Asia an important market and opportunity for Invitrogen?

The simple answer is Asia Pacific is already recognized by Invitrogen as an important and growing marketplace.

Do you speak Chinese?

Not really. My Japanese is a little bit better.


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