Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Afterlife of the California Stem Cell Agency: Venture Philanthropy and Big Pharma

The $3 billion California stem cell agency, which is facing its possible demise in five years, is exploring an afterlife that dips into "venture philanthropy" on a national level as well as investment ties with Big Pharma.

The Golden State's unprecedented research program laid out those possibilities in a "transition plan" sent this week to Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature. The plan was required under a law passed two years ago. The agency's future direction was also aired at a meeting last month in Los Angeles.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM) will run out of funds for new grants in 2017. Its only real source of funding is cash that the state borrows (bonds). CIRM says that only $864 million remains for new research awards, and some of its recent grant rounds exceed $200 million. The current position of the agency is that it is "premature" to consider asking voters in financially strapped California to approve another multi-billion dollar bond measure.

The venture philanthropy effort involves creation of a nonprofit organization. CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said in January that he is "test-driving (the proposal) with some high net worth donors we know to be interested in the stem cell space." Thomas was addressing the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee, the only state entity specified charged with overseeing the agency and its directors. He said,
"We're busily putting together in conjunction with a national organization called the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine the plans for a nonprofit venture philanthropy fund."
He said it would "would accept applications for awards from researchers and companies all over the country, not just those funded by CIRM, but those funded by NIH or the New York Stem Cell Foundation or the state of Maryland or whatever."

The Alliance for Regenerative Medicine is an industry-dominated lobbying group, based in Washington, D.C.  The group's executive director and co-founder is Michael Werner, a longtime pharma and health industry lobbyist, who is also a partner in the influential Washington law firm of Holland and Knight.

The "biopharma investment fund" proposed by CIRM is less well developed. CIRM said it plans to explore opportunities with companies to fund stem cell research in California. The transition document uses as an example an $85 million deal between Pfizer and UC San Francisco, which gives the company special access to biomedical research.

The transition plan also touches on other issues such as winding down grants after its new grant money runs out, along with protecting intellectual property.

The plan could be considered a marketing tool for the agency's afterlife efforts. The document devotes a good portion of its nine pages to recounting the history of CIRM and touting its accomplishments.

Thomas used the occasion of the submission of the plan as a springboard for a piece yesterday on the CIRM research blog.He concluded his item by quoting from the plan itself. CIRM's achievements during the past seven years, he wrote, "will allow California to continue world (stem cell) leadership in the coming decades."

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