Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Look Inside the Financial Woes at the California Stem Cell Agency

California's $40 billion budget crisis landed hard last week on its five-year-old stem cell agency, which is now engaged in the initial stages of an unusual effort to sell state bonds privately.

If CIRM is successful, it is believed that it may be the first time that the state has placed bonds privately and perhaps the first time for any state in the nation.

The scope of CIRM's fiscal difficulties were laid out last week during a board of directors meeting that heard words like dire, daunting and pain. CIRM director Carmen Puliafito, dean of the USC School of Medicine, said,
"We have a financial crisis looming."
He was not alone among the directors with that perspective. But at the same time, CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and others (presumably including Puliafito ) worried about the message being delivered concerning what is now the world's largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Klein and others stressed that while "challenges" exist, the private bond sale plan provides hope.

Bonds are the key to CIRM's financial survival. They are virtually its only source of funding, although it does have some cash that has been donated. The agency does not tap the usual sources of state revenue, such taxes and fees.

Currently California is not selling bonds because of its budget crunch and turmoil in the bond markets. If and when the state does begin sales, other state needs will take priority, leaving CIRM with the necessity to find cash to continue operations perhaps for as long as the next two years, according to a briefing at the CIRM board meeting Thursday evening.

Klein repeatedly stated, however, that current grants will be funded and that the state has a legal, contractual obligation to do so.

John Robson
, CIRM's vice president for operations, walked through through the numbers for board members. Here is a summary of what his Power Point presentation contained. The entire presentation can be found at the end of this item.

CIRM had $158 million on hand as of Jan. 1. It has awarded $637 million as of last Thursday. It projects expenses of $139 million by July 1, when it will have $39 million on hand.

If no additional bonds are sold, by the end of 2010, CIRM will be $134 million short of being able to fund on-going commitments. If it tries to fund both on-going commitments and projects whose concepts have been approved by the board, it will need $320 million by the end of 2010. The shortfall would be $377 million if new projected new programs are added.

Robson presented several recommendations "to achieve scientific mission critical goals during (the) cash-flow shortfall." They included switching from annual to quarterly payments for grants, which could save $21 million to $109 million depending on which of the three scenarios are chosen. Another recommendation was possibly delaying requests for grant applications. Robson, however, identified as "mission critical" both the Bridges to Stem Cell Research grant round and early translational and disease team grants.

The $18 million Bridges program was approved on Friday but actual funding was delayed until the agency has a better understanding of the outlook for the plan to sell bonds privately.

Other recommendations/administrative actions included no additional "upfront funding" for its much-touted lab construction effort, which would save $55 million to $60 million. Another option was to reduce budgets for all grants by a fixed percentage.

The board itself took no action on the recommendations other than declaring that it would decide later on the actual funding of the two training grant programs approved on Friday. It indicated generally that the staff should make a change to quarterly funding. CIRM is also going ahead with requests for applications this month for its $210 million disease team round, which Klein said was critical. The board expects to hear updates on CIRM's financial condition at its meetings in March and April.

On Friday, we asked CIRM if it had additional comments on its financial situation for this piece and said the remarks would be published verbatim. We will carry the agency's remarks if and when we receive them. In the past, we have personally told both Klein and CIRM President Alan Trounson we are more than glad to carry comments from them verbatim on any CIRM-related subject of their choosing.

Klein on Friday indicated that at some point, the agency would make a general statement on its website about its fiscal difficulties.

CIRM has not yet posted a link to the Power Point presentations that Robson made to directors Thursday on its financial situation. However, CIRM communications chief Don Gibbons kindly sent a copy of the presentations to the California Stem Cell Report. Since CIRM perhaps has other, more important business than posting presentations, we have published them below. Robson's presentation begins on slide 4.
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