Sunday, June 15, 2008

California Stem Cell Cash – Last Resort for Business?

Revolutionaries, uncertainties and big California bucks are all part of a piece in IP Law & Business magazine this month dealing with the state's $3 billion stem cell research agency.

Written by Joe Mullin, the cover piece explored the world of IP at CIRM, including comments from Robert Klein, chairman of the agency, and concerns from biotech businesses.

Klein was described as maintaining "the rhetoric and stance of a combative underdog." Mullin wrote that Klein spoke to a group of stem cell activists last spring, firing them up for the fray.
"'How many people do you think it takes to start a revolution?' he asked the crowd. 'I can tell you, it's many less than the people in this room.'"
Mullin noted the importance of California's $3 billion for research at both academic institutions and businesses. But he said that the fact that California has called for payback on some of its investment is troubling to some in industry. He wrote:
"...(If) California is any guide, state funding may usher in long periods of uncertainty, and new demands for a much larger share of the proceeds from any discoveries than what the life science industry has seen before."
Mullin continued:
"By contrast (to the federal government), California's stem cell agency is still an unknown quantity, and that spooks the biotech industry. 'There is an oft-repeated concern that IP will need to be shared with competitors,' says (Paul) De Stefano(a Fish & Richardson partner and former chief corporate counsel for Genentech Inc.). 'Whether that's a legitimate fear or not, I've heard literally dozens of investors talk about it,' he adds.

"BioTime Inc., for instance, had considered applying for a small CIRM grant-only about $300,000-but has decided to look elsewhere for now. The company's CEO, Michael West, says he still might apply for a CIRM grant, but he'll keep the money away from BioTime's core business so as not to burden the company with what he calls 'completely unrealistic' state royalty rates."
Mullin wrote:
"The fact that CIRM is considering changes to the IP policies is 'disquieting, to say the least,' says Palo Alto-based StemCells, Inc. general counsel Kenneth Stratton. His company, which along with Geron is well-established by industry standards, won't say whether it is applying for a CIRM grant. But like West at BioTime, Stratton says that the requirements make CIRM money expensive and less attractive than other options. The agency is at risk of becoming a 'funder of last resort,' says Stratton."
However, Mullin quoted CIRM officials as saying it is currently processing 50 grant applications from businesses. That number undoubtedly will rise as more requests for applications are forthcoming from CIRM.

Our comment: Klein is inclined to flourishes that are keyed to his different audiences. On one hand, he fires up activists with rhetoric unsettling to businesses. On the other hand, he assuages industry anxiety at sessions involving his generous $500 million biotech loan proposal. Business concerns about uncertainty are financially quite legitimate and to be expected. However, those concerns will never be completely alleviated, and California has a big bundle of cash previously unavailable to industry. CIRM has an obligation to cut the best deal possible for the people of California.

(Access to the IP Law & Business article requires free registration, although it calls the process a "subscription.")

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