Saturday, December 03, 2011

Strategy at CIRM: New Sources of Cash, More Funding Transparency, Better PR?

The California stem cell agency is huddling with industry, scientists and public as it wades through a revision of its strategic plan to determine how to spend its remaining $1.4 billion before the cash runs out.

CIRM officials have held at least 10 meetings with a variety of groups, including three public sessions. The next public hearing is Thursday in Los Angeles at the CIRM board meeting.

The revision comes as the agency wrestles with the increasing need to generate results that will resonate with California voters. CIRM's original $3 billion, which consists of cash borrowed by the state, will run out in roughly 2017. The agency is considering mounting a ballot campaign for another multibillion dollar bond measure. The agency is also under examination by the prestiguous Institute of Medicine and is likely to hear recommendations for changes from that report next fall.

Ellen Feigal, senior vice president for research and development, summarized stakeholder comments so far on CIRM's plans in a 13-page documment prepared for the meeting at Cedars-Sinai. She identified several key themes from stakeholders, including the need to find "alternate funding resources," presumably non-public financing. Feigal also cited a need to make the grant funding process more transparent, apparently reflecting complaints from industry. But she noted that stakeholders have said the agency has made "great initial progress" in its first seven years.

Here are four of the five themes Feigal identified. The fifth dealt mentioned CIRM's progress.
  • "CIRM needs to become more aggressive in finding alternate funding resources and to implement greater creativity in identifying the types of organizations that may be able to contribute to the sustainability of CIRM's work"
  • "Robust public affairs tactics are necessary, and CIRM needs to better communicate the organizational initiatives, as well as educate the public more broadly."
  • "Greater transparency in the funding process is needed, and there is a great need for the process to be less bureaucratic and easier to navigate."
  • "CIRM needs to provide greater opportunities for networking and breed collaborative projects that unite academic and industry as well as researchers across geographic reasons."
Feigal also mentioned a number of recommendations from industry, which has been less than happy with its meager share of CIRM funding. The suggestions included creation of "communications bridges" and better communication of the funding process. Also recommended was a "split review process – (academic vs. industry)" and a faster approval process that takes into account the high "burn rate" of cash at biotech companies. Another industry suggestion was creation of an "in-house champion" to help businesses navigate the CIRM funding process.

Feigal will come back to the board in January with a draft revision. It is scheduled to be approved March 21. The final plan will be shipped off to the IOM panel studying CIRM. It is scheduled to conclude its work next fall.

Interested parties can email their comments on the plan to CIRM ( or speak at CIRM board meetings. The specific address for Thursday's meeting can be found on the agenda. A teleconference location is also available at UC San Francisco, where members of public can take part.

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