Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Half-Billion-Dollar Biotech Loan Proposal Moves to Finance Committee

How do you turn $500 million into as much as $1 billion over 10 years? Loan it to struggling biotech companies that could default on the loans at a rate of up to 50 percent.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but that's what the California stem cell agency is projecting for what appears to be the most optimistic scenario for its proposed biotech loan program.

The program came up for discussion last week at the CIRM directors meeting. John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog attended the session and filed an item for his group's blog. Simpson wrote that the concept "appears promising" but he still had questions.
"The main one is with CIRM's limited staff, how will loan applications be adequately vetted? Robert Klein, chairman of the stem cell agency's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), has suggested using outside 'designated underwriters.' Lots more needs to be made clear about how that would work and how conflicts will be avoided."
We have written previously about the same concerns. But with the new economic models that were laid out last week, a need has arisen for a sharp-eyed, detached business analysis of the plan. It would also be useful to see that analysis in a form that is reasonably accessible. The documents available so far on the latest agenda of the Biotech Loan Task Force are fairly technical and somewhat incomplete. For example, they do not explicitly lay out a range of scenarios from the best to the worst.

Two fundamental questions are yet to be addressed about the biotech loan program: Is it a "good way" to turn $500 million into $400 million or less -- instead of $1 billion? And what is the likelihood that might occur?

Risk cannot be removed from this intriguing plan, but it should be fully understood.

The biotech loan program has been sent to the CIRM Finance Committee, which could hold hearings over the next couple of months. The hope is that the biotech loan program could be launched in the disease team program grants in the spring of 2009.

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