Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Ins and Outs of CIRM's Push to Keep the Geron hESC Effort Alive

The $3 billion California stem cell agency has confirmed that it is looking for companies to take over Geron's hESC business, but remained vague on the details of just what it is proposing as well as any financial incentives.

A certain ambiguity may appropriate because Prop. 71, the ballot initiative that created CIRM seven years ago, constrains the state research effort, which is engaged in an aggressive push to bring stem cell therapies into the marketplace.

After last week's New Scientist article in which CIRM President Alan Trounson said he was talking to at least three companies, the California Stem Cell Report emailed this inquiry to the agency:
"Re Trounson's comments about CIRM trying to find an enterprise to pick up the Geron hESC business, what form is that taking? Are CIRM officials contacting companies, asking them to consider the Geron business? Are promises being made that Geron's loan would be passed along to a new company? Are CIRM officials giving any sort of assurance that the new enterprise would be looked on favorably in terms of possible CIRM financing help, even a wink or some such thing?"
In response, Maria Bonneville, executive director to the CIRM board, said yesterday,
"Dr. Trounson is encouraging companies to take a hard look at the potential of this project. If any companies express a solid desire to continue the project, they would be thoroughly vetted through CIRM's existing procedures."
The stem cell agency is limited by law in what it can do encourage a deal for Geron's orphan business. Nonetheless it will have to move quickly if it wants to keep Geron's hESC team intact. Otherwise, those folks will be heading for more secure employment.

With some crafty lawyering, however, CIRM might be able to move its $25 million Geron loan over to a some sort of new entity if the clinical trial remains virtually identical.

The agency might also find a way to use a newly created $30 million "strategic partnership" program to support a deal involving Geron's stem cell program. CIRM's new program is industry friendly and aimed at early stages of clinical development.

However, by law, only a public vote of the 29-member board of directors can approve a loan or grant. That vote is taken in what is supposed to be a blind process in which the names of the applicants are not known. However, it is clear from last May's approval of the Geron loan that the directors knew the identity of the applicant although it was not announced publicly until after the formal 16-1 vote. The agency's procedures also call for action prior to the board vote by its grant review group, which makes the de facto decisions on grants.

The timeline on normal award rounds is lengthy – more than a year from concept to finish – and may not be appropriate in this case. Plus the rounds are open to more than one applicant.

CIRM's current award rounds for business involve loans not grants. The loan policy was developed, in part, because businesses objected to the financial hooks in grants. Originally, the loan program was created to fund business projects that otherwise could not find funding. The program was originally slated to run as high as $500 million. The interest was expected to finance additional research.

The agency also has geographic constraints. It cannot pay for work outside of California. So that would mean that a potential buyer probably would need a substantial presence in California unless the agency could put together a deal in which Geron is still in the game and doing some of the work.

The agency can receive warrants in loan deals but does not make stock investments. It probably cannot legally directly buy a stake in a company and thus provide a cash infusion.

A new arrangement for Geron's hESC business would need some likelihood of a substantial stream of cash over the next several years, based on what Geron said last week. But the current environment for early stage biotech investment is quite difficult. And then there is the FDA, which authorized the clinical trial and is likely to have something to say about who operates it.

Whether CIRM can overcome all these obstacles would seem to be problematic. But, of course, Geron is also shopping its business around. And some buyers might be attracted by a bargain basement price enhanced by the expectation of continued cash from the California stem cell agency. Sphere: Related Content


  1. Jim Fossett7:30 AM

    Hans Kierstead, one of the scientists who developed the initial treatment, has been quoted in several places as saying the small market size--only about 6,000 patients per year--may simply not be able to support the costs of completing the clinical trial process.If the potential revenue is relatively small and won't materialize for several years, it may be difficult to find a buyer even at fire sale prices.

  2. Jim Fossett8:03 AM

    I'm confused--CIRM can hold warrants, which are like stock options issued by the company that give the holder--in this case CIRM--the ability to buy stock in the company (Geron)at a specified time and price, but they can't exercise them and actually buy the stock? If that's the case, why would they take them in the first place? As some form of collateral if the company doesn't pay the loan back?

  3. Re Jim Fossett's question concerning warrants and stock, we have queried the stem cell agency concerning the matter. We will post an item when we receive a response.