Friday, January 11, 2008

Time for Business to Weigh in on CIRM Biotech Loan Plan

The California stem cell agency will hear next week from lenders and investors concerning its ambitious biotech loan progam, which is aimed at plugging a funding gap that has blocked development of stem cell therapies.

The Biotech Task Force is scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Burlingame, Ca., with a remote teleconference site at BIOCOM in San Diego. On tap is testimony from "capital providers and other experts." The task force has indicated it also plans to schedule a session with business and other potential applicants, which could include nonprofit research institutions.

According to California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein, the program could offer up as much as $750 million in loans to enterprises that cannot normally find funding from the usual providers. The program could get underway as early as this year, although the schedule is up for discussion next week.

Last month, Alex Philippidis, editor of the BioRegion News, interviewed Duane Roth, chairman of the task force, concerning the program. Here are some excerpts from the BioRegion piece. Roth told Philippidis,
"Think of the loan program — at least that’s the way I’m thinking about it, and the way our task force is thinking about it — as an evergreen fund. That means we can provide early-stage funding that is not available or has very limited availability from other sources [in order to] allow these products to move forward. Eventually those companies or those institutions that are sponsoring would repay the loans with interest, which would allow us to fund somebody else six, seven, eight years down the road."
Roth continued,
"If the program existed today, we’d be — and this is my opinion, and one I think is shared by the committee — that right now, the biggest gap in the funding is at the preclinical level, when somebody’s getting ready to say, ‘OK, I have preclinical evidence that this works. Now I have to do the toxicology and all the requirements for an investigational new drug application to the [US Food and Drug Administration].’ That is the toughest money to get. And that would be, if we put out [request for awards applications] today, that is likely what we would target."
More from Roth:
"But we don’t know where in the future the funding gaps are going to be, where the venture capitalists, or the angels, or Wall Street is not funding. And what we’re going to try to do is identify those gaps, and then put programs together to fill those gaps with funding from CIRM."

"It really would be a misnomer to only think that these loans would go to, quote, biotech companies. They may well go to other institutions that are also interested in advancing what we broadly categorize as products in this area."

"With this type of technology, it’s probable that there’s going to be a lot more interaction between the research institutes and what we classically think of as the companies that move these therapies forward. Some of them, at least, will be [stem] cell-based, so it’s not unlikely that many of the research institutes will get involved through pre-clinical, clinical, early clinical trials."
It is hard to overestimate how important it is for interested companies and institutions to weigh in early and often on this program. Sometimes industry seems to be missing from key CIRM proceedings. We recently discussed this issue with a representative of a company that pays more attention to CIRM than most. She said many of the companies in the stem cell business are tiny, very busy and cash-strapped. Thus it is difficult for them to monitor CIRM and offer comments, even though CIRM proceedings could be critical to their futures. Nonetheless, California stem cell companies should be monitoring CIRM more closely. Otherwise rules and regulations that may not be in their best interests could be promulgated.

The same advice goes for groups purporting to represent the "public." If they want to have an impact, they should be at the meetings and offer specific, constructive written recommendations on matters of interest. Only one organization, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights, seems to filling that role regularly at this point.

For more on the biotech loan program, search this blog using the search term "biotech loans." Or click on the label "biotech loans" just below this item. Sphere: Related Content

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