Thursday, April 11, 2013

StemCells, Inc., Nails Down Controversial, $19 Million Award from California Stem Cell Agency

The stock price of StemCells, Inc., price today jumped as much as 9 percent after the company disclosed it had finally concluded an agreement with the California stem cell agency for a $19.3 million forgivable loan for research twice rejected by the agency's scientific reviewers..

The stem cell agency governing board seven months ago approved the loan to the Newark, Ca., firm. But the cash was withheld until the financially strapped company could demonstrate that it could match the size of the loan, as promised in its application.

The StemCells, Inc., (SCI) application was nixed two times in 2012 by the agency's scientific reviewers who gave it a score of 61. In a controversial move, the 29-member board approved the award in early September on a 7-5 vote after former agency chairman Robert Klein intervened publicly on behalf of the firm. It was the first time that Klein had lobbied the board publicly on behalf of an application. It was also the first time that the board approved an application that was rejected twice by its reviewers, a panel of internationally recognized stem cell scientists.

In a press release, Martin McGlynn, CEO of StemCells, Inc., said,
"With CIRM's support, we are now able to lay the groundwork that could result in the world's first neural stem cell trial in Alzheimer's patients."
Both the company and the $3 billion state research agency were tight-lipped about the nature of the matching funds from the company, which reported losses of $28.5 million in 2012 on revenues of $1.4 million.

In a brief response to questions from the California Stem Cell Report, McGlynn said, 
 “At this time, we do not intend to elaborate any further on the contents of our press releases or public filings pertaining to the SVB (Silicon Valley Bank) or CIRM(the stem cell agency) loans.”
Earlier this week, the company reported receiving a $10 million loan from Silicon Valley Bank. Both McGlynn and the stem cell agency did not answer a question about whether those funds are being used to back the award from California taxpayers.

The agency confirmed that the firm was providing $19.3 million in matching resources. But Kevin McCormack, senior director of public communications, did not provide any specifics on the nature of the match. He only said,
“The matching  requires them to demonstrate they have enough funds necessary to fund SCI’s share going forward as well as their own operations and other commitments.”
The award was originally for $20 million. We have queried the agency about the smaller figure announced today.

The company's stock price rose as high as $1.87 earlier today after closing at $1.71 yesterday. It stood at $1.77 at the time of this writing. Its 52 week high is $2.67, and its 52 week low is $0.59. The loan from Silicon Valley Bank gives the bank warrants to purchase 293,531 shares of the company at $1.70 over the next 10 years.

The 10-year loan from CIRM is low risk for the company, which said its “obligation to repay the loan will be contingent upon the success” of the research. If a product is developed, it will take years before it could hit the market.

The award to StemCells, Inc., put the stem cell agency in a touchy situation involving the company's decision last month to reject an additional $20 million award from the agency.( It was the first time a recipient has rejected an award.) Neither the company nor the agency would give a reason for the rejection of the loan for a spinal injury project . However, the award also required a $20 million match, which undoubtedly tested the company's resources.

The spinal injury application was scored at 79 by agency reviewers and was routinely approved by the board. With its withdrawal by the company, the agency, which prides itself on funding only the best science, was left supporting research (StemCells, Inc.'s Alzheimer's project) judged significantly inferior by reviewers with its score of 61.

In response to a question about that situation, CIRM's McCormack said,
“Our goal is to always fund the best, most promising science. This is not the first time that our board has voted to fund a project that the Grants Review Group had not recommended (this has happened in around 2% of cases) The board did so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this was the first disease team application that had a goal of  moving a promising stem cell therapy for Alzheimer's towards clinical trials.”
The round in question, however, had another application dealing with Alzheimer's which was scored at 63, two points higher than the one from StemCells, Inc. Reviewers also did not recommend funding that application.

The action last September by the agency board came only after it publicly said the funds would not be distributed until the StemCells, Inc., could show it could provide the match, still another first for the agency.

The award triggered a column in the Los Angeles Times by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Hiltzik, who said in October that  the process was “redolent of cronyism.” He said a “charmed relationship” existed among StemCells, Inc., its “powerful friends” and the stem cell agency.

StemCells, Inc., was founded by Stanford researcher Irv Weissman, who was a major fundraiser for Proposition 71, which created the stem cell agency in 2004. Klein headed the ballot campaign, which spent more than $30 million to win voter approval. Weissman sits on board of directors of StemCells, Inc., and holds 124,608 shares in the firm, including 8,630 he reported this month receiving.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:06 PM

    Hmmm- It may be appropriate to ask whether Irv Weissman was awarded some extra stock to reward his efforts in persuading the ICOC to vote favorably.


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