Monday, December 15, 2008

Business Snags $5.3 Million from CIRM

IRVINE, Ca. -- Six California companies snapped up $5.3 million last week in grants from the California stem cell agency, marking the first major industry funding from the $3 billion state research enterprise.

Up until the latest round of grants, only one company, Novocell Inc. of San Diego, had won a grant and that was for only $50,000.

However, the CIRM board did not approve business applications at the same rate as those from the nonprofit sector. Only one out of seven business proposals (41 in all) won approval last week compared to one out five nonprofit pitches(77 in all).

(The board put off action until next month on some grants so the figures could change when final action is taken.)

The six companies snagged about 26 percent of the nearly $20 million in grants for developing research tools and technology. The six also represented about 26 percent of the 23 grants that were approved.

CIRM President Alan Trounson said,
"These awards represent the entry of the biotechnology industry into CIRM-funded initiatives to accelerate progress."
Nonetheless, other companies appeared at the CIRM board meeting here to complain about the fairness of the review process, which they said was tilted towards academia. One company, DNAmicroarray Inc. of San Diego, suggested changes in definitions for "principal investigator" on grant applications that would reflect differences between business and the nonprofit sector.

Here are the companies and their awards:

VistaGen Therapeutics of South San Francisco, $971,558, PI Kristina Bonham; Fluidigm Corp. also of South San Francisco, $749, 520, PI Marc Unger; Gamma Medica-Ideas of Northridge, Ca., $949,748, PI Douglas Jay Wagenaar; Novocell Inc.of San Diego, $827,072, PI Evert Johan Kroon; Invitrogen of Carlsbad, $869,262, PI Ying Liu, and Vala Sciences of San Diego, $906,629, PI Patrick McDonough.

As of this morning, only one of the companies had generated a press releases about its CIRM grant, while at least some of the academic grant recipients were online as early as Wednesday with their good news. The release by Vala said, among other things, that its grant will be executed in close collaboration with laboratories at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research led by Vincent Chen and Mark Mercola.

Last week's meeting also marked the first time that CIRM directors allowed "extraordinary petitions" to challenge negative decisions on applications by the Grants Working Group. Three were received in time to be considered. Three others were also received but not by the deadline for consideration by CIRM staff and the board. The deadline falls five working days before the board meeting..

In each of the three cases, CIRM President Trounson said he could not find "compelling evidence" to change the score of the application or the decision of the working group. The full board can bring up petitions for public discussion but did not choose to do so.

Two petitions were filed by private businesses, International Stem Cell Corp. of Oceanside and DNAmicroarray Inc. of San Diego and one by the Salk Institute of La Jolla. Here are links to the petitions: International Stem Cell (filed by Jeffrey Janus, president, and William Adams, CFO), DNAmicroarray (filed by Babak Esmaeli-Azad, president) and Salk (filed by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, professor, Gene Expression Laboratory).

Adams also appeared before the CIRM board, citing "fundamental problems" involving the way business applications were treated. Some members of the board have expressed sympathy with the view that there is a tilt towards academia in the review process. CIRM is attempting to find more grant reviewers with a business background.

Reporter Terri Somers of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a story on the business grants. Bruce Bigelow of also had a brief item, declaring that CIRM had "opened its spigot for funding business ventures."

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