2020 was, by any standards, a pretty wacky year. Pandemic. Political convulsions. And a huge amount of uncertainty as to the funding of life-saving therapies at CIRM. Happily those all turned out OK. We got vaccines to take care of COVID. The election was won fair and square (seriously). And Proposition 14 was approved by the voters of California, re-funding your favorite state Stem Cell Agency.
But for a while, quite a while, there was uncertainty surrounding our future. For a start, once the pandemic lockdown kicked in it was impossible for people to go out and collect the signatures needed to place Proposition 14 on the November ballot. So the organizers of the campaign reached out online, using petitions that people could print out and sign and mail in.
It worked. But even after getting all the signatures needed they faced problems such as how do you campaign to get something passed, when the normal channels are not available. The answer is you get very creative very quickly.
Bob Klein, the driving force behind both Proposition 71 (the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM) and Proposition 14, says it was challenging:
“It was a real adventure. It’s always hard, you have a complicated message about stem cells and genetics and therapy and it’s always a challenge to get a million signatures for a ballot initiative but in the middle of a pandemic where we had to shut down the signature gathering at grocery stores and street corners, where we had to go to petitions that had to be sent to voters and get them to fill them out properly and send them back. And of course the state went into an economic recoil because of the pandemic and people were worried about the money.”
Challenging absolutely, but ultimately successful. On November 13, ten days after the election, Prop 14 was declared the winner.
As our President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan says, we went from an agency getting ready to close its doors to one ramping up for a whole new adventure.
“We faced many challenges in 2020. CIRM’s continued existence was hinging on the passage of a new bond initiative and we began the year uncertain if it would even make it on the ballot. We had a plan in place to wind down and close operations should additional funding not materialize. During the unrest and challenges brought by 2020, and functioning in a virtual format, we retained our core group of talented individuals who were able to mobilize our emergency covid research funding round, continue to advance our important research programs and clinical trials and initiate the process of strategic planning in the event that CIRM was reauthorized through a new bond initiative. Fortunately, we planned for success and Proposition 14 passed against all odds!”
“When California said “Yes,” the CIRM team was positioned to launch the next Era of CIRM! We have recruited top talent to grow the team and have developed a new strategic plan and evolved our mission: Accelerating world-class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments to a diverse California and worldwide in an equitable manner.”
And since that close call we have been very busy. In the last year we have hired 16 new employees, everyone from a new General Counsel to the Director of Finance, and more are on the way as we ramp up our ability to turn our new vision into a reality.
We have also been working hard to ensure we could continue to fund groundbreaking research from the early-stage Discovery work, to testing therapies in patients in clinical trials. Altogether our Board has approved almost $250 million in 56 new awards since December 2020. That includes:
Clinical – $84M (9 awards)
Translational – $15M (3 awards)
Discovery – $13M (11 awards)
Education – $138M (33 awards)
We have also enrolled more than 360 new patients in clinical trials that we fund or that are being carried out in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic network.
This is a good start, but we know we have a lot more work to do in the coming years.
The last year has flown by and brought more than its fair share of challenges. But the CIRM team has shown that it can rise to those, in person and remotely, and meet them head on. We are already looking forward to 2022. We’ve got a lot of work to do.