Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Faster Cash but Tougher Competition for California Stem Cell Researchers

A slide from today's Webinar on CIRM 2.0
Randy Mills, who has led California’s $3 billion stem cell agency just since last May, today told a cyberspace audience that his agency will finance only the “absolute best” proposals under his new “2.0” version of the research effort.

Mills addressed about 200 persons who logged into a Webinar to learn more about the radical changes that began this month at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known. Mills has dubbed the new direction CIRM 2.0.  And he said,
CIRM 2.0 is going to be highly, highly competitive.”
It was a theme that the CIRM CEO came back to several times. He advised listeners that the competition will be tougher than in the past and that the agency will be more discerning.

CIRM 2.0 is aimed at both improving the quality of applications and at speeding money into the hands of researchers, cutting the time from application to funding from an average of 22 months to four months.   Mills intends to extend the new process to basic research and translational research later this year. 

Mills, the former CEO of Osiris Therapeutics in Maryland, said,
“We’re in the time business at CIRM.”
Mills said he expects the quality of applications to improve as the agency becomes more engaged in working with researchers to build proposals that will meet the agency’s needs.  CIRM will additionally become a partner with successful applicants and provide outside, expert help to overcome such things as logjams involving possibly the FDA or manufacturing problems, Mills said.

One of the major changes in CIRM 2.0 involves timing of grant rounds. Instead of rounds a year or more apart, Mills said,
“The application window is always open.”
The agency kicked off the new program this month with clinical stage programs. The deadline for filing applications is a week from this Friday(Jan. 30). No applications have been filed as of today.  No worries, Mills basically said. Applications will be accepted again next month with a deadline of Feb. 28 and every month thereafter with the deadline falling on the last business day of each month.

The agency has strict legal requirements to limit its spending to California operations. But in a Q&A session during the Webinar, Mills made it clear that a foreign-based company was eligible to seek funding for research activities that were being conducted with the Golden State.

In a brief telephone interview later, Mills said today's session was part of a "massive" effort on the part of the agency to spread the word about research funding opportunities involving CIRM.  He said he has been surprised about the lack of awareness -- outside of a relatively small circle in California -- of the availability of CIRM cash for biotech enterprises that traditionally have been struggling for funding.  

During the Webinar, Mills also acknowledged that CIRM 2.0 is new and is likely to encounter “some bumps” that he said the agency will work to solve. Nonetheless he told the researchers,
“This is going to be one wild ride.”
Mills’ Webinar on CIRM 2.0 is expected to be posted on the CIRM Web site either later today or tomorrow.

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