Sunday, January 18, 2009

$500 Million CIRM Lending Program Up on Wednesday; Details Missing

With only two business days left before a key CIRM meeting, California's stem cell research agency is keeping under wraps important details of how it plans to lend $500 million to the state's riskiest biotech ventures and make $100 million doing so.

Directors of the agency have approved the concept for what amounts to a biotech bank that would cater to enterprises that cannot gain normal financing. Loan default rates of up to 50 percent have been predicted by the plan's backers. The specifics, however, remain to be resolved. On Wednesday, the directors' Finance Subcommittee will dive into that complex subject.

Just what is being proposed at that session is not available to the public on CIRM's web site – only this cryptic language from the agenda:
"Consideration of policies and implementation plan/processes for CIRM loan program, including but not limited to the Loan Administration Policy and the role of delegated underwriters/financial service providers."
The lending program is the brainchild of CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who has been pushing it for more than a year. The idea behind it is to help to provide funding for companies through what is known as a financial "valley of death" and to generate additional funds (the $100 million profit) for CIRM to use as additional loans or grants.

The closest thing to a current, basic, one-stop overview of the lending program is the proposal approved by CIRM directors in September. No business plan for the enterprise has been produced.

The biotech bank program calls for delegated underwriting of the loans, a practice much criticized at Fannie Mae, which had to be taken over by the federal government. CIRM does not have the expertise to run a half-billion dollar lending program, so an outside contractor must be hired. An earlier draft of a "concept plan" for underwriting was discussed Nov. 19, 2008, at a Finance Subcommittee meeting. It is not clear whether an identical plan will be offered on Wednesday.

Also discussed in November was a 12-page loan administration policy for loans to businesses. Directors made a number of suggestions for changes in it. The version to be considered on Wednesday is not available to the public on the CIRM web site.

Only two companies offered comments on the plans at the November meeting, International Stem Cell of Oceanside, Ca., and DNAmicroarray of San Diego. Both expressed general support of what they heard although they had some criticism of details.

Earlier this month, CIRM posted a request for information concerning the criteria and compensation for an underwriter, including provisions for dealing with conflicts of interest. According to CIRM, only one business responded, Silicon Valley Bank of Santa Clara, Ca., which has been involved in CIRM discussions about the lending program for months. CIRM expects to have more than one underwriter in order to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

In response to a question, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons said last Thursday,
"We are also in discussion with a few other institutions and hope to have comments from them prior to the Finance committee meeting."
Gibbons has not yet responded to a request for the names of those companies.

Silicon Valley Bank and its parent group, SVB Financial Group, have 27 offices worldwide and 11,000 clients, according to its web site. The bank says that "more than half of all venture-backed companies in the U.S. are SVB clients."

The bank says,
"With an unmatched network of relationships with life science VCs and a dedicated team of life science experts, we are the partner of choice for emerging and established medical device and biotech companies."
SVB presented a plan to the Finance Subcommittee in September that laid out a possible business relationship with CIRM. Directors discussed the possibility of having a similar presentation at a full board meeting but were concerned about leaving the appearance that a decision had been made to go with Silicon Valley Bank. They suggested that if the bank's slides were used that its name be removed from them. It is not clear whether such a presentation will be made at Wednesday's meeting or at the full board meeting later this month.

Teleconference locations (two in San Francisco, one each in La Jolla, Berkeley, San Carlos, Palo Alto and Irvine) where the public can participate in the Wednesday meeting can be found on the meeting agenda.
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