An Unexpected Twist
Russ Olsen’s sports injury led to a career in regenerative medicine and eventually launching his own biotech firm. Now the Alumni Heritage Award winner has created an RMU scholarship in honor of his grandfather.
“We covered marketing, entertainment, sports management. It was a fascinating class."
Russ Olsen ‘82 remembers the moment he felt his knee snap — and his life change. As a member of the wrestling team at Ligonier Valley High School, he was training for district qualifiers, grappling with a teammate at practice. His opponent grabbed him by the ankle and twisted his leg for a takedown.
Olsen howled in pain as his knee was bent backward, tearing his medial and lateral meniscus and several ligaments. Though his surgeon was able to repair his knee, its limited function prevented Olsen from returning to competitive sports. It was a crushing disappointment. But he turned his sports ambitions to becoming an agent or coach, or otherwise working in athletics, and enrolled at RMU as a sport management major. His junior year kinesiology course, which focused on the anatomy and mechanics of body movement, gave Olsen new insight into his own knee injury and a new career path. “I became fascinated by medicine,” he says, “and the ways to improve someone’s recovery from injury and subsequent performance through new technologies and surgical techniques.”
It was the beginning of his journey to becoming an innovator in the field of regenerative medicine. Olsen worked as an executive at medical device and biotech companies for many years before founding his own company, Triad Life Sciences, in 2017. The Memphis-based company is developing new technologies to harness the regenerative properties found in placental materials, in order to help patients recover faster after suffering a traumatic wound or soft tissue injury.
Olsen is the recipient of the 2018 RMU Alumni Heritage Award, the university’s most prestigious honor. He was selected for his accomplishments in medical innovation and his generosity to the university — including his establishment of the C.W. Olsen Scholarship, named after his late grandfather.
Olsen has fond memories of the camaraderie among his RMU classmates packing into the John Jay Center to cheer on the basketball team’s first season qualifying for the NCAA tournament. He also formed strong bonds with his professors. He cites David Synowka for not just teaching him about sport management, but pushing him to excel. “I was the classic underachiever,” Olsen says. “He didn’t let me slide by. He challenged me to be the best I could be and brought out more of my talents.”
Triad’s technology focuses on new formulations of regenerative materials, using human and animal placentas as well as other organic materials, to develop less costly treatments and better therapeutic outcomes. “We are able to do it at 50-75 percent less cost than our competitors without compromising product quality,” Olsen says. “It is a very disruptive business model, but more importantly we are making a difference in a patient’s quality of life.”
The biggest rewards in his line of work are the improvements he sees in people’s lives. “We hear about people who couldn’t get out of bed who are now walking and gardening,” he says. “We visited Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, and you see the smile you put on a child’s face when you help alleviate their pain and give them hope to one day be able to enjoy a normal, healthy life.”
Triad has also helped injured collegiate and professional athletes get back to playing again at a high level. Some of its other star clients have been racehorses; after receiving treatments for injured legs, several California thoroughbreds are once again galloping down the Santa Anita racetrack. “As a population, we are living longer, consuming more healthcare resources and seeking new therapies and medicines to extend our quality of life,” Olsen says. “The advancement of surgical techniques, technology, and transformations in healthcare to detect, treat, and prevent diseases associated with aging is almost limitless.”
The father of two sons attributes his personal and professional success to his experience at RMU, the support of friends and family, his faith, and the guidance and life lessons he received from his grandfather, Clarence William Olsen, an electrician who emphasized integrity and devotion to family and community. The C.W. Olsen scholarship goes to a student with financial need, with preference for applicants from Westmoreland County.
Drawing on his own experience as a former aspiring athlete, the wrestler-turned-entrepreneur has advice for young people with professional sports ambitions: “You are one injury from being in the bleachers as a spectator. Make sure you get a good education, and always have a backup plan.”