Norrie Russell turned 50 last week and got a job. Sounds like a milestone week. Well, the part about hitting 50 years old — “going to the other side” he described it — wasn’t all that exciting, said Russell in a telephone interview on his second day at work at Aviva Biosciences of San Diego. But, the part about getting a job as chief executive officer and president at an early-stage biochip company, with several promising products in the pipeline, that was really exciting, he said.
Aviva is developing a patch clamp chip to capture single cells for ion channel measurements and another chip for rare cell isolation. Its first product is expected this year and its second within 18 months, Russell said (see BioArray News 6/21/02).
Russell resigned as president and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Lynx Therapeutics in June, a month after closing lifeline funding of $22.6 million through a private placement and laying off 30 percent of its staff. The three months since then, Russell said, is best described as garden leave. “I was doing some consulting and looking at a lot of companies,” he said. Garden leave is a British employment concept that describes when an employee, who has given notice or has been given notice, continues to receive normal salary but is told not to report for duty.
These days, he is looking forward rather than backward. He now settles behind a rosewood desk in an office shared with the director of business development and gets up to speed on company details. His commute to the 5,000-square-foot facility in the Sorrento Valley section of San Diego takes about seven minutes as opposed to the hour-and-a-half ride he used to make in San Francisco.
Russell’s hiring was one of the final details of a Series B funding that he said is close to completion. Although he was not active in the financing, he said he had spoken to the major investors. Clearly, he passed muster. “It was important to get the full-time CEO in place as part of closing the B round,” he said. The financing, would be enough to carry the company until the commercialization of its first product and a Series C financing round, or an initial public offering, he added
Aviva, started in March of 1999 and receiving $5 million in funding in early 2000, was based on a patent for technology licensed from Tsinghua University in China. “The company is at a point of inflection on its growth curve,” Russell said. “It’s time to physically grow it and manage that growth.”
In the very short term, Russell has to find an apartment. Over the longer term, he has to shepherd the development of three technology lines. There is some risk involved in this move, but it’s an accepted part of life in an industry he has worked in for 20 years, he said: “Risk is inherent in the nature of research, but it’s no different than for anybody else in any other biotech company in the United States.”