Monday, January 12, 2015

Fast Cash in California for Stem Cell Research; $50 Million Up for Grabs

The stem cell agency's new logo to promote CIRM 2.0
California’s $3 billion stem cell agency this month is kicking off the first round of radical changes in how it finances research, including funding of the clinical trials that it hopes will push nascent therapies into widespread use.

The money is scheduled to start flowing to scientists in the Golden State as soon as June in a new, fast-track program that is called CIRM 2.0. But only if the researchers file their applications within the next 19 days. Slow-moving researchers, however, will have a chance to file again at the end of next month and each following month.

The effort has all the earmarks of a venture capital program with heavy involvement by the financing party (CIRM), involving both the budget and the science.  The agency, known as CIRM after its formal name of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, last Friday repeated its pledge to be an “active investor,” which may or may not be welcomed by some researchers.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik recently wrote that scientists would find a “lot to like” in the new direction at the agency. Here is how CIRM put it in a news release Dec. 31 that contained links to the detailed program announcements, 
“CIRM 2.0 is a radical overhaul of the way the agency does business, implementing efficient new systems and programs that place added emphasis on speed, partnerships, and patients.
“CIRM 2.0 makes it easier for both companies and academic researchers with promising projects to partner with CIRM to get the support they need when they need it, reducing the time from application to funding from around two years to just 120 days.”
The release laid out some of the aspects of the new grant review and funding process, which the agency expects to extend to all its remaining $1 billion in award programs, 
“Speed:  In addition in to reducing the time to funding to 120 days, new clinical stage projects may be submitted to CIRM year round instead of only once or twice a year as in the past. Applications simply have to be filed by 5pm PT on the last business day of the month to be eligible for consideration in that round of review. If you miss the deadline one month, you only have to wait 30 days for the next one.
“Partnerships:  Under CIRM 2.0, the agency will not act as a passive funding source, but instead will be an active investor, devoting significant internal resources and leveraging its vast external team of world-class subject matter experts to advance the projects it selects. This will result in a true partnership that both accelerates programs and gives them the greatest opportunity for success.
“Patients: Each project will be partnered with a project-specific Clinical Advisory Panel  (CAP) to help advise and guide it forward.  Importantly, every panel will include at least one patient advisor with first-hand experience of the specific condition, who will provide input, recommendations and the appropriate sense of urgency that can only come from the unique perspective of someone living with the disease.” 
The agency has allotted $50 million to be handed out between now and July for programs involving clinical trials or preparation for clinical trials.  Applicants can ask for as much cash as they desire. But their proposed budgets will be scrutinized by an outside panel and subject to possibly substantial revision. If CIRM does not fancy the researcher’s figures, the application will not be presented to reviewers.  

The budget review is a significant change from past procedures.  It is just one of many changes, small and large, that scientists need to understand about the new process. Others involve restrictions on appeals, solvency requirements for businesses and, in some cases, hefty co-funding requirements that must be documented in advance. In-kind support, for example, will no longer be acceptable as  matching cash or for co-funding.

If scientists want to be competitive, they would be wise to carefully review the program announcements posted at the first of the month. In some cases in years past, applicants have lost out simply because they failed to understand in a timely fashion all the nuances of the process.

Other changes include the following:
  • Businesses are limited to 10 percent indirect costs compared to 20 percent nonprofits, a requirement backed by CIRM board members representing nonprofits.  The agency said no legal conflict of interest existed for board members from nonprofits who voted for the bigger indirect allotment for their enterprises.
  • Budgets must contain contingency plans for financing should expenses exceed initial estimates.
  • Applicants must be ready to work within 45 days of CIRM board approval of their applications.
  • The agency – not grant reviewers -- will determine whether applications meet eligibility requirements. If they do not, they will not be reviewed. An appeal by an applicant may be made behind closed doors to the grant review group.
  • No public appeals are formally allowed. However, state law permits all members of the public, including researchers, to speak directly to the board on any issue. That avenue for seeking funding, however, has not been very successful in recent months. 
The grant review group is likely to continue to make -- behind closed doors -- virtually all the de facto decisions on application approvals. Their actions will come in three "recommendations" to the board: fund the application, do not fund but allow re-submission or do not fund and do not allow resubmission.  The CIRM board will then ratify in public the group’s decision, as it has almost invariably in the past. The board has the legal authority to do anything it wants with applications, but it has rarely overturned positive decisions by the board. Infrequently, it would approve some lower ranked applications. The new procedures would seem to make any public appeals to the board by researchers even less likely to be successful.

Randy Mills, CIRM photo
CIRM 2.0 is the brainchild of Randy Mills, who took over the presidency of the agency last May. He has launched a major effort to spread the word about the move. It includes a Jan. 21 “webinar” conducted by Mills to discuss CIRM 2.0. Advance registration is required.

On Jan. 20, the CIRM directors Science Subcommittee is scheduled to vote on new grant administration rules involving CIRM 2.0. That is another matter that researchers who wish to be successful in securing funds should be following and making recommendations on.  Sites where they can participate are in San Francisco, Oakland, Irvine, Duarte, La Jolla and Sacramento. See the agenda for specific addresses.

Gil Sambrano continues to head the review process, albeit with a new title: director of portfolio development and review. His phone number and email can be found on the program announcements posted at the first of the month (see here, here and here). 

For additional news stories on CIRM 2.0, see here and here.

1 comment:

  1. CIRM is having a webinar specifically to talk about the changes under CIRM 2.0 The webinar is FREE and open to the public. Please see more information on the CIRM website. January 21 at noon Pacific


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