Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Potential Death of California Stem Cell Program Hangs Over Its Performance Evaluation

The looming demise of California's $3 billion stem cell research effort dominated today's meeting of its governing board, which was told both that the agency has made "incredible progress" but needed to do better.

The occasion was the presentation of a $230,000 performance audit required by state law, a task performed by the firm of Moss Adams, one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the world.

The firm's 38-page report targeted fund-raising, retention of staff and better utilization of board members in its recommendations for improvement and called for a more concrete plan for raising more than $200 million. Excerpts from the report can be found here and an earlier story on the audit findings here.

In its oral presentation, Moss Adams representatives had a number of good things to say about the stem cell agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). They cited the agency's "incredible progress" and said "we usually see a lot of good things here."

It was the third go-around for Moss Adams, which has performed all three of the CIRM performance audits. (See this for links to the previous audits.) Today's presentation, however, focused more on the issues surrounding the agency's end within a few years, unless ambitious fundraising plans are successful.

The agency expects to run out of cash for new awards next year unless it is successful at raising $200 million from private contributors. That would take care of the agency's needs until a possible $5 billion bond measure might be approved by California voters in 2020.

One board member, Jeff Sheehy, also a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, raised a number of critical questions, seeking more details about the fund-raising effort. He said there seemed to be a "lot of uncertainty" about it.

Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the agency, said a fund-raising plan is in place. He is leading the effort and being assisted by two other employees. He said some board members have been engaged and he plans to consult with all 29 board members.

David Higgins, a board member from San Diego, asked Thomas about a "double-edged sword" that could come into play because of a successful fund-raising effort. Higgins said the public might be more likely to oppose to a new bond measure if the $200 million is raised, reasoning that public funding was not needed in light of private support. Thomas said he did not think that was a major problem.

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