Facing the likelihood of a slow and withering death, the California stem cell agency is edging gingerly forward on a path of “cuts” and risky fund-raising in hopes that its research results will soon generate voter support for more billions of dollars.
Two governing board committees of the $3 billion agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), on Monday, Nov. 27, recommended that the full board “entertain” the proposals at its Dec. 14 meeting.
Klein says a private poll showed 70 percent of Californians supported stem cell research and continued funds for the stem cell agency.
The agency is down to its last $269 million and expects to halt new awards in 2019 unless additional funds are raised between now and the beginning of 2020. It has been running at a $300-million-a-year pace recently and has pumped out about $25,000 an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week since it started making awards in 2005, according to calculations by the California Stem Cell Report.
Monday’s meeting focused on both short and long term finances. The committees examined a proposal to cut its planned clinical awards by $68 million over the next two years by limiting their size. The committees also indicated support for an ambitious effort to raise $222 million privately between now and early 2020.
Longer term, directors staked their hopes on voter approval of a ballot initiative in November 2020 that could total $5 billion. Development of a stem cell therapy that would resonate with voters would be a major key to the success of that effort. The 2004 campaign raised expectations that stem cell cures were right around the corner, but so far the agency has not backed one for widespread use.
Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who ran the 2004 campaign that created the agency, told the CIRM directors of a private poll that he said showed 70 percent of Californians supported stem cell research and continued funds for the stem cell agency.
Following the meeting, the California Stem Cell Report asked him for a copy of the poll. He declined to provide it or identify the firm that conducted the survey.
Raising $222 million privately over the next two years is no small task, but deep pockets exist that may well be tapped.
Klein told the CIRM board members that the agency has made “remarkable progress” and has created a “moral imperative” to continue the search for stem cell cures. He said, “The bridge to the future is CIRM and stem cell therapies.”
The now less-than-robust finances of CIRM are a product of the ballot initiative, Proposition 71, that created it. CIRM is not funded through the customary process used by most state agencies. The initiative stipulated that CIRM would be supported by $3 billion in state bonds whose funds would flow directly to the agency and bypass the legislature and the governor. When that cash runs out, the agency is left with no other source of state funding.
Raising $222 million privately over the next two years is no small task, but deep pockets exist that may well be tapped. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, for example, has donated nearly $80 million to stem cell research centers at UCLA, UC San Francisco and the University of Southern California. All three are linked to CIRM. In San Diego, the Sanford Stem Cell Consortium was given $100 million in 2013 by Denny Sanford, another billionaire. The consortium came into being after it was backed by $43 million from CIRM.
Nonetheless, competition for philanthropic cash is heated. Thomas and Klein, however, both indicated that they would collaborate on raising the $222 million, which would allow the agency to add eight new clinical awards in 2020, among other things.
The risk lies in the timetable for bringing in the cash. The agency has a relatively tight schedule for making awards — a schedule that a major philanthropist may or may not be ready or willing to comply with.
Without more cash, the stem cell agency projected that it would wither away by 2023 as it managed a declining number of old research grants.
Ed’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 11 years.