Monday, November 11, 2013

The California Stem Cell CEO Search: Not Necessarily a Scientist but Should be Unperturbed by Public Criticism

Some sketchy clues are surfacing concerning the nature of the search for a new president for the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

They popped up in an RFP for help from an executive search firm to find candidates to replace Alan Trounson, who is resigning to return to his home country of Australia. (He is scheduled to be in Chile this week.)

The RFP contained a “draft” of a description of the job of the new CEO. It said that the salary could range as high as $548,788 annually with a benefit package that appeared to be negotiable. That could be important if the new president might come from out-of-state to California's sky high home prices.

According to the description, the new president should be a “well-recognized leader.” Notably the description did not specify that the individual must be a scientist but said the person should have “scientific credibility.” The individual must have both “unassailable integrity” and “ a solid reputation for ethics and integrity and be sufficiently self-possessed to not be perturbed by criticism or controversy.” The agency also appeared to exclude candidates from overseas, limiting the search to the United States.

The RFP indicated that the job description might be changed as the governing board works through its selection process. The board's Presidential Search Subcommittee will hold its first meeting this Friday, some of which is public.

The RFP also said that “outside time limit” for selection of the president is six months from the award of the contract, scheduled for Dec. 16. Responses to the RFP must be submitted no later than Nov. 26. No price tag was put on the search contract although the last one in 2009 was budgeted for $100,000. And it did not come up with Trounson, the person who snagged the job that time around.

Our take? The agency faces several critical decisions in the next few months, including action on a plan to finance its future since it runs out of money for new grants in 2017. Also on the table are decisions on the handful of research projects that it expects to back more strongly in hopes of more successfully promoting commercialization of stem cell therapies. That is not to mention the ambitious proposed $70 million Alpha stem cell clinic effort. Assuming six months to hire a new president and another six months before the person is actually in place, the new CEO could be well behind the curve by the time he or she is on the job. While it is three years or so before money runs out, the reality is that the agency must move with considerable dispatch to cement its continued existence. Building support and positive recognition is a long-term project, and right now the stem cell agency is little known outside of scientific circles, which are small indeed. Producing something akin to a cure is also crucial in winning support from lawmakers, the public or the private sector.

The nine-year-old agency has had only two presidents, not counting one interim CEO. Selection of those presidents was marked by considerable difficulties, including divergent views of the CEO role among board members. However, the need for speed and continuity at the agency may smooth over some of those rough spots in this latest presidential search.

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