The former president of the $3 billion California stem cell agency received $443,500 in total compensation from the Bay Area stem cell company that appointed him to its board of directors only seven days after he left his state post.
The stock and cash were provided over a two-year period to Alan Trounson by Newark-based StemCells Inc., a firm that was awarded more than $40 million in funding while Trounson headed the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as the state stem cell agency is formally known.
In 2014, when Trounson served less than six months on the StemCells Inc. board, his total compensation was more than double that of any other board member.
The surprise appointment of Trounson almost immediately after he left CIRM in 2014 generated allegations of conflict of interest. The size of Trounson’s total compensation, however, was not available at that time.
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Conflict-of-interest allegations have dogged the agency since it was created in 2004 by California voters to use state bond proceeds to finance stem cell research.
In 2008, the respected scientific journal Nature warned about “cronyism” at the agency. In 2012, the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academies of Sciences, recommended in a $700,000 study commissioned by CIRM that the stem cell agency make sweeping changes to reduce the possibility of such conflicts.
Speaking about the agency’s board, Harold Shapiro, chairman of the Institute of Medicine team, told the Los Angeles Times, “They make proposals to themselves, essentially, regarding what should be funded.”
The agency made some changes to deal with conflict questions but resisted the institute’s far-reaching proposals.
The latest news prompted John Simpson, who has followed the stem cell agency for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, to say in an email, “Trounson’s joining the StemCells Inc. board a mere seven days after quitting as CIRM’s president at the time smacked of being a payback for a job well done on behalf of the company when he should have been looking out for the taxpayers’ money and interests. It was a blatant conflict that undermined the agency’s credibility. Now we know his price tag.”
In 2014, the stem cell agency said its “limited” investigation showed that no violation of law occurred. At the time, CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas described the issue as a “perception” problem.
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission later investigated to determine whether Trounson “had made, participated in or influenced a governmental decision involving StemCells Inc. after he began employment negotiations.”
A Feb. 6, 2015, letter to Trounson from the FPPC said there was “insufficient evidence to demonstrate” a legal violation.
Asked for comment, Robert Stern, the key author of the California Fair Political Practices Act and former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said in an email, “It is an appearance problem when someone goes to work for a company that has benefited from huge contracts from the agency that he heads even if he had nothing to do with the decision to award the contract.”
The payments to Trounson were made in 2014 and 2015, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings by StemCells Inc. The cash totaled $59,500 and the stock options totaled $384,000 for the two-year period. Trounson was appointed president of California’s stem cell agency in 2008. He was named to the StemCells Inc. board July 7, 2014. The stock price has dropped precipitously since the award of Trounson’s stock options.
Last month, Trounson resigned from the StemCells Inc. board as part of a deal in which the financially troubled firm was acquired by Microbot Medical Ltd. of Israel. StemCells Inc. said in an Aug. 15 SEC filing that the resignations of Trounson and Stanford University researcher Irv Weissman were not “the result any disagreement with the company on any matter.”
Weissman was a co-founder of the company and also served on its scientific advisory board. Trounson served on the company’s strategic transactions committee.
Connections between Trounson and Weissman surfaced well before Trounson’s appointment to the StemCells Inc. board. In 2013, a $40 million CIRM funding application round involving Weissman was postponed after it was disclosed that one of the application reviewers had a legal conflict of interest. The case involved Lee Hood of Washington state, who owns property in Montana with Weissman. Hood acknowledged the conflict of interest and resigned as a reviewer. Trounson helped to recruit Hood as a CIRM reviewer, the agency said.
In 2012, StemCells Inc. was awarded $40 million in a single funding round, the only applicant ever to reach that level of success. One of the two $20 million awards was approved by the stem cell agency’s board despite being rejected twice by its grant reviewers. It is the only time that an application has been rejected twice by reviewers and then approved by the governing board.
In 2013, the company declined one of the awards, which required a matching amount. In December 2014, the second $20 million award was terminated early because of poor results. That left StemCells Inc. receiving a net of $9 million from the agency.
Trounson, a pioneering researcher in the field of in vitro fertilization, returned to his home in Australia after leaving the agency. Contacted by email, he said, “I was cleared by independent legal advice by CIRM and no conflict was found by a Californian government investigation. ... The share values are unknown – perhaps worth nothing. I actually pay monthly fees to hold them.”
Weissman, who has received $30.5 million from the agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Trounson controversy surfaced shortly after C. Randall Mills was named to replace Trounson as president of CIRM. Mills then signed a pledge that he would not accept employment with any award recipient for at least a year after he leaves the agency. However, the agency did not set restrictions on future employment by other agency employees.
Asked for comment, Thomas, chairman of the agency since 2011, said in an email, “Dr. Trounson’s financial involvement with StemCells Inc. occurred after his separation from CIRM in June of 2014, and we have not been in contact with him since. Two years later, CIRM is a very different and vastly improved organization – we’ve reduced the time it takes to review applications by 80 percent, recaptured $75 million from programs not meeting performance standards, and reinvested that money, doubling the number of clinical trials in our portfolio.
“In addition we are doing all this with the good governance, transparency and accountability the citizens of California deserve.”
The agency has about $800 million in uncommitted funds. It expects to run out of cash for new awards in 2020 unless it finds fresh sources of funding.
Jensen, a former Sacramento Bee editor, has covered stem cell agency affairs since 2005, publishing more than 4,000 items online on the California Stem Cell Report.