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Bond financier will chair California stem cell agency

The board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, California’s state stem cell agency, has voted to appoint bond financier Jonathan Thomas as chair of the agency’s board.

The vote came in a meeting of the board last night in San Diego. The vote settles a months-long succession drama over who would replace the current chair, Robert Klein, who drafted the 2004 ballot measure that created the agency.

In choosing Thomas, chairman of Saybrook Capital of Santa Monica, Calif., the CIRM board picked an attorney and banker over cardiologist and entrepreneur Frank Litvack, who was the only other candidate for the position. The board voted 14-11 for Thomas.

Thomas had endorsed a Klein-style hands-on approach, and was reportedly seeking to be paid close to $400,000 – the maximum salary range set for the position. He had been nominated by three of the four state officers charged with putting forth candidates for the job, and received a last-minute boost from treasurer Bill Lockyer, who wrote a strongly worded letter in support of Thomas just days before the vote. Lockyer controls the state bond sales upon which CIRM depends for its financing.

Litvack had been seeking a much lower salary than Thomas – around $137,000, which was the minimum range set by the CIRM board. He had also promised a more “hands off” oversight role, in contrast to Thomas.

Thomas, who will serve a six-year-term, will be tasked with leading CIRM through a pivotal time. The agency needs a fresh infusion of bonds early next year, but California has delayed the sale of bonds this year, and the state’s bonds are not selling well. Thomas will also need to help the agency deliver on its promise to provide new treatments for disease if the agency is to convince voters to authorize the purchase of more bonds above the $3 billion approved by voters in 2004.

Klein cited Thomas’s financial experience as a crucial factor in the board’s decision. “The board’s decision today to elect Jonathan Thomas reflects a primary focus on public finance expertise during this period of state, national and international stress,” Klein said.

Thomas praised the agency’s mission last night. “It is clear that the board and staff of the agency are doing crucial cutting edge work that promises to revolutionize medicine as the Agency’s funded research plays out over the coming years,” Thomas said. “CIRM is one of California’s true success stories.”


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