Tuesday, January 28, 2014

California's Stem Cell CEO Search: Dangling a 16-page Lure

The California stem cell agency yesterday posted what could be called a recruiting brochure for the effort to hire a new president to replace Alan Trounson.

The document, which was prepared by the search firm Korn Ferry, is couched in language designed to stimulate interest in those seeking a challenge and opportunity.
  • “Few technologies have captured the imagination of the public quite like human stem cells,” the brochure begins.
  • “Transformative public funding,” it says at one point.
  • “One of the most influential agencies in the universe of stem cell research,” it says at another.
The 16-page brochure deals directly with less pleasant aspects of the job such as the likelihood that the agency could wind up in hospice care in three years when the money for new grants runs out.

It is also surprisingly forthright about the longstanding and controversial problem of the dual executive arrangement decreed by law. It may be the first time that the agency has so directly admitted publicly and formally that the overlapping responsibilities of the president and chairman have caused serious difficulties. 

The document says,
“This unique partnership has amply demonstrated its value when the president and chair have worked well together, but the organization has suffered when this has not been the case. An ability to adapt to this model of governance and management will be a critical attribute for the next president.”
The CIRM/Korn Ferry brochure is explicit about the direction of the agency towards pushing therapies into the marketplace and clinic. That is significant because of continuing pressures to well fund basic research, which means less money for efforts that are closer to clinical use. The document says,
"With the remaining resources of the state’s commitment, it is CIRM’s intention to focus its funding decisions increasingly on a host of projects with particular clinical promise, bringing the science it has strategically cultivated to the fruition of human therapy.  Both the governing board and the staff of CIRM are committed to this pivot in organizational priorities, driven to fulfill the dream of the people of the State...."
It is unclear when a new president will be on the scene. There is talk about a hire being made by April or May, but having the new person actually in the office five or more days a week could be a different matter. Trounson said last November he would stay on for awhile. But his family remains in Australia, where he is seeking to return.

The directors' Presidential Search Subcommittee meets tonight in Berkeley to discuss the brochure, which the agency labels a "candidate position statement." Korn Ferry has a $160,000 contract with the agency. The agency has previously used search firms in its presidential recruitment. None of them have come up with the person that was ultimately hired.  

Teleconference locations where the public can comment are available in Costa Mesa, La Jolla and San Francisco. Specific addresses can be found on the agenda.

(Editor's note: The three sentences on the size of the Korn Ferry contract and the success of previous search firms were not contained in an earlier version of this story.)
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