The making of a President; why we chose Randy Mills to lead the stem cell agency

New President Randy Mills with a very happy Board Chair Jonathan Thomas

In the end, the choice was simple.

When we began our search for a new President of the stem cell agency we knew it wouldn’t be easy to find someone with the skills, experience and expertise we needed.

We hired a highly regarded executive search firm, Korn Ferry, to help us with the task; we put together a Presidential Search Subcommittee; drew up a long list of requirements we wanted in a candidate; sifted through dozens of applications and narrowed it down to seven people to call in for interviews.

Each of the seven had strong qualifications and we anticipated a tough choice. But as soon as Randy Mills sat down we knew we had the person we were looking for.

We knew all about Randy’s experience in leading Osiris Therapeutics. While serving as CEO, he helped Osiris become the first company to commercialize a stem cell drug, Prochymal, for the treatment of acute graft-vs-host disease in children, a devastating and often fatal complication of bone marrow transplantation. We also experienced first hand, as a member of our Grants Review Group for the past five years, his sharp intellect and keen analytical mind. But what impressed us most, and made our decision easy, was that in everything he said in the interview he demonstrated a clear sense of leadership, an understanding of our mission and a compelling vision for the future of the stem cell agency.

Randy summed up his priorities in two words: the patients.

Sandy Barker met Randy when her teenage son, Christian, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. Christian developed graft-vs-host-disease and Sandy tried everything she could to get permission for him to take Prochymal, at the time an experimental therapy. But everywhere she turned doors were closed in her face. That’s when Randy joined her in the fight.

“He worked tirelessly to help get approval for Christian to have Prochymal. He didn’t even know us and he had nothing to gain from us but he did everything he could to help my son. He simply has a very compassionate heart when it comes to patients.”

Eventually they got permission to give Christian the stem cell therapy but it was too late. His disease had progressed too far. He died at just 14 years of age. Despite, losing her son, Sandy says that experience led her to become an advocate for other patients and families going through what she did. And she says with Randy, every patient and every family battling a deadly disease will have a champion.

“I cannot tell you how highly I regard Randy. He has amazing leadership skills— but more than that he has such an amazing heart. He really cares about people and I’m so excited that he’s going to be in a position where he can help so many other patients who are desperate for treatments. He is unstoppable.”

Ours is a complex organization. Not only do we fund ground-breaking scientific research, but we are also a state agency. Our mission is to find therapies and cures for chronic disease and injury as quickly as we can and, as a public agency, we operate in a fishbowl. The position of President requires a rather unique set of skills to be able to handle all aspects of the job.

We are also at a challenging point in our life. It is now almost ten years since the passage of Proposition 71, the voter-approved initiative that created us. In that time we have made extraordinary progress, helped fund 10 projects that are in clinical trials and have several more starting clinical trials this year. But our work is far from done. We have many other research projects that are making great progress and we want a new President who will help ensure that we are able to move those, as quickly as possible, from the lab and into clinical trials in people.

Randy is that person. He has the scientific knowledge, the organizational skills, the business acumen and the personal qualities that this position needs. Tony Atala from Wake Forest, one of the leading stem cell researchers in the U.S. described Randy as a great choice:

“Over the years, what has impressed me most about Randy is the consistent sense of urgency he has towards helping patients in need. Those of us who work in this field know that the potential of regenerative medicine is enormous. However, Randy has demonstrated the unique ability to turn that potential into reality. He will make a great President at CIRM and will keep the organization focused on developing and delivering stem cell-based technologies that improve patients’ lives.”

We couldn’t agree more. It is those qualities that led us to choose Randy as our new President.

We knew that replacing Alan Trounson, who is stepping down to rejoin his family in Australia, was going to be difficult. Alan has done an extraordinary job in leading the agency and positioning us as a global leader in the field of stem cell research. But with Randy we know we are in good hands and we look forward to writing the next chapter in our history with him as our President.

Jonathan Thomas

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