Friday, November 08, 2013

The Search for a New California Stem Cell Agency CEO

The governing board of the $3 billion California stem cell agency faces a critical leadership challenge in the next few months as it attempts to find a new president for the nine-year-old organization.

It is a challenge in at least two ways. One is the more or less straight-forward process of finding candidates to replace Alan Trounson, who is leaving to return to his family in Australia. The second is whether the governing board can move quickly and unite on the needed attributes for the next president.

That may sound simpler than it is. But the 29-member board is large and unwieldy. A nine-member board, for instance, would be able to make decisions much more quickly. In the last presidential search, the board had difficulty in coming together on the qualities for a new CEO. Today the choice would seem to be between a star or semi-star researcher or a knowledgeable person who can synthesize the choices and make the stem cell train run on time.

The agency also is confronting an unusual financial situation – at least in terms of recruitment – that is likely to make it more difficult to find top level candidates. The agency will be all but out of business in 2017 unless it can secure additional funding. Money for new grants will run out that year. Top candidates for the presidency may find that possibility unappealing. The situation will also require a president who understands fund-raising, both public and private, and can successfully navigate California political and governmental byways. The agency is currently involved in developing a plan for its future finances, including possibly some sort of public-private combination.

Another issue that is likely to complicate recruitment is the troublesome dual-executive arrangement at the agency in which the chairman of the organization and president have overlapping responsibilities. Some candidates may not be willing to step into such a situation, which is legally dictated by Prop. 71, the ballot measure that created the agency, and which is politically impossible to change in the next couple of years.

The new president will also have to be a person who can help retain staff at the San Francisco-based agency, which has only slightly more than 50 employees. Now is not the time to be losing key personnel, but given the funding situation, some may be tempted to take advantage of appealing opportunities elsewhere.

One straight-forward way to deal with the vacancy is to look internally. Such a course has several advantages: It would require no learning curve and would demonstrate a commitment to existing employees. But foremost, it could be done quickly and ensure stability. Another possibility is to find a candidate – retired or in the late stages of his or her career – who would be willing to step in for a few years to keep the agency on course during this critical period. It could be appealing to the right person, given the unusual nature of the agency and the challenges that it faces.

Trounson is remaining in place at least during the initial stages of the presidential search. But he is already a lame duck and will unavoidably become more of one as time passes. His focus will naturally and justifiably shift to his family concerns and his return to Australia. That will inevitably create managerial slowdown and procrastination at a time when speed is necessary – not only for finding new funding sources but for making important strategic decisions on the most promising avenues to pursue to commercialize stem cell research.

The board's Presidential Search Subcommittee meets one week from today to begin its work. A public session will precede a closed-door personnel meeting. Some documents from previous presidential searches are available on the CIRM Web site via the agenda for the meeting. The public can take part in the public portion, which is likely to be quite brief, at locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Irvine and La Jolla. The specific locations can be found on the agenda.

Stakeholders in the stem cell community are welcome to weigh with comments or suggestions at the session or by sending them to

The members of the subcommittee, in alphabetical order, are Sue Bryant, interim provost at UC Irvine; Anne-Marie Duliege, chief medical officer at Affymax; Sam Hawgood, dean of the UC San Francisco medical school; Steve Juelsgaard, former executive vice president of Genentech; Sherry Lansing, former chair of the UC regents and Hollywood studio CEO, Jeff Sheehy, a patient advocate board member and communications manager at UC San Francisco; Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the agency board and a Los Angeles bond financier; Art Torres, vice chairman of the agency and former head of the state Democratic party, and Kristiina Vuori, president of the Sanford-Burnham Institute. Sphere: Related Content

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