Thursday, June 23, 2011

Race for the Chair: Political and Financial Pressure Help Thomas Win CIRM Chairmanship

SAN DIEGO, Ca. –- Directors of the $3 billion California stem cell agency late yesterday evening elected Los Angeles bond financier Jonathan Thomas as chairman of the unprecedented research enterprise as it strives to fulfill seven-year-old campaign promises to turn stem cells into cures.

The board voted 14-11 to choose Thomas over Frank Litvack, a cardiologist/businessman, also from Los Angeles. The vote came with no debate following a three-hour closed session. Each candidate appeared separately in private, followed by a discussion among board members, also in private. Only one member of the public spoke out on the election during the public portion of tonight's meeting, during which each candidate read a statement.

The California Stem Cell Report was told that Gov. Jerry Brown's office called six members of the CIRM board during the past two days and managed to switch some members from Litvack to Thomas. The governor's office did not respond to queries about the matter.

Outgoing Chairman Robert Klein said the key factor in the vote was the state's current financial crisis and its possible negative impact on CIRM, which depends solely on state bonds for cash. Earlier Thomas sounded an alarm about CIRM finances, telling directors it was necessary to move to assure financial stability. CIRM faces both short and long term financing problems. Thomas could be the last chairman of CIRM unless he and the board devise a way to finance it beyond 2018, roughly the date when the agency runs out of money.  (For more on Thomas' remarks, see here.)

Klein told the California Stem Cell Report that Thomas would be paid something in the range of $390,000 to $395,000 annually for 80 percent time on the job. (The agency later said the correct figure is $400,008.)

Thomas is chairman and co-founder of Saybrook Capital of Santa Monica, Ca. The firm specializes in distressed government bonds. The current state budget crisis in California has left the state with the worst bond rankings of any state in the nation. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who controls the sale of state bonds, and the governor and lieutenant governor all nominated Thomas.

On Monday Lockyer sent a strong letter to his five appointees to the CIRM board urging them to vote for Thomas. He said the bond financier was the only candidate with a "complete toolkit" for the job. Lockyer stressed Thomas' background in bond financing.

Unless CIRM receives funds from a fresh bond sale, it will run out of cash in the middle of next year. However, the state is limiting its bond sales because of its budget crisis. CIRM will face tough competition to have its bonds placed in the two sales rounds expected to come up in the next 12 months. .

Some observers interpreted Lockyer's letter as a veiled warning to the entire 29-member board to approve Thomas, with the letter implicitly raising the possibility that the agency could come up short in the next bond rounds.

Longer term, CIRM has only about $1.4 billion or so to hand out for grants or loans. Klein has touted a $3 billion to $5 billion bond measure that would be presented to voters sometime during the next few years. To win support of the proposal, the agency will need a record of substantial accomplishment that resonates with the public.

During Thomas' six-year term, the agency will also have increasing responsibilities for monitoring its massive and growing grant portfolio. The task will become more challenging with larger and more complex grants and loans that have achievement benchmarks that must be met. If not, CIRM is supposed to withdraw its cash. At the same time, the agency continues to wrestle with its computerized grant management system.

To accomplish its goals, CIRM is working ever more closely with the biotech industry. Some industry executives have been dismayed at the tiny fraction of funding that has gone to businesses. A blue-ribbon review panel last fall cited the need to bolster funding for industry. At the same time, the taxpayer-funded agency must assure that the state receives full value for its dollar.

Litvack also had a blue-ribbon business resume along with a record of scientific accomplishment. One description calls him a "serial entrepreneur." He was CEO of Conor MedSystems of Menlo Park, Ca., when it was sold a few years go to Johnson &  Johnson for $1.4 billion. More recently he has been involved with Pervasis Pharmaceuticals and Capricor, Inc.

Litvack touted his scientific and business experience in developing new products and running the FDA gauntlet. State Controller John Chiang, who recently gained national attention for cutting off the pay of California legislators because they failed to pass a balanced budget, nominated Litvack. Chiang said,
"Litvack knows from personal experience what it takes to develop new medical technologies and move them through the regulatory process to adoption in the market place."
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