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LSDF may metamorphose into life science, cancer research administrator

Recrimination and agitation over the Republican-led legislative defunding of the Life Science Discovery Fund Authority (LSDF) has given way to cautious enthusiasm about the possibility its staff and board may be tapped to administer and oversee funding activity for the state's new Cancer Research and Endowment Fund (CREA).

It's not yet certain that LSDF, created a decade ago out of the state's share of Tobacco Settlement millions to promote growth of the life science industry in this state, will take over administration of what would be a Center of Excellence for Life Science and Cancer Research. But bringing that about could amount to creating some vision out of what has been legislative confusion.

The Legislature's 2015 final budget compromise funded the cancer-research entity in a head-scratching manner while killing future funding for LSDF. But the lawmakers did not put the organization itself out of business because LSDF must function well into the next biennium to oversee fulfillment of the 46 grants already awarded from the fund. It just can't make any more life-science grants.

The quixotic aspect of the Legislature's creation of CREA was that the lawmakers gave specific detail to its board makeup and duties and required that it contract with "a program administrator" to oversee grant solicitation and distribution and fund management.
 
But lawmakers didn't designate who would manage the $10 million annual state-fund grant that would have to be matched from the private sector before it could be spent, so there has been speculation since then that LSDF would be a logical entity to oversee CREA.
 
Rep. Jeff Morris 

The proposal to turn cancer-fund administration over to LSDF has been up in the air since it was approved by the state House and passed out of committee in the Senate, but stalled in the Senate Ways & Means committee when the regular session ended.

Democratic Rep. Jeff Morris, a member of the LSDF board and sponsor of the proposal, said he hopes the legislation paving the way for a new role for LSDF will be part of final budget negotiations. He explained that Sen. Andy Hill, chair of the Ways & Means Committee and the key Republican in the negotiations, "asked if we would object to a 6 percent administrative-cost cap and I indicated we would not."

John DesRosier 
eanwhile, as a future role for LSDF remains unclear, its board of trustees, staff members and a number of recipients of its grants will gather March 25 to celebrate the contributions of John DesRosier, who served first as director of programs when LSDF was established in 2005, and through most of the Authority's existence as executive director. DesRosier, who has retired, had spent almost a quarter century in research and technology commercialization before joining LSDF as it was forming.

Among those who will be on hand to thank Des Rosier is Lee Huntsman, the first executive director, who was appointed by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire after LSDF was established in 2005 by Gregoire and the Legislature.

I asked Gregoire for a comment on the decade of LSDF's existence and on DesRosier's role and she said: "LSDF has accomplished more than I could have hoped. I believe it has helped save lives and I believe it will continue doing so and there is no greater accomplishment. We were fortunate to have John DesRosier as the leader to make it happen."

Commenting on DesRosier's role guiding LSDF, Morris said "John was one of the best strategic hires I've seen by our state in my years of public service. He made our grant-selection process world class and many other states have looked to our process to improve their own performance"

Part of what the cancer-fund legislation envisions is a board that better reflects an understanding of cancer, but by coincidence that comes somewhat with the current board, whose chair is Carol Dahl, executive director of the Portland-based Lemelson Fund. 

Dahl's research while a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh was cancer focused and she also spent nearly six years at the National Cancer Institute and built the Office of Technology and Industrial Relations and multiple programs there during that period. 

Asked about her view of DesRosier's role, she said he"has truly been an amazing advocate for the life sciences in Washington and an outstanding steward of the state's investment in LSDF."

"The substantial impact of the LSDF funding resulting in over $60 million in health-care saving, more than a half billion in follow-on funding, and hundreds of lives saved ,is a credit to John's leadership and the dedication of the entire staff that has supported  LSDF since its inception," Dahl said.

One of the largest grants from LSDF was $5 million to Omeros Corp., which related to a $20 million partnership with Vulcan to advance the company's leading-edge G protein-coupled receptor program. GPCRs, which mediate key physiological processes in the body, are one of the most valuable families of drug targets.

Omeros chairman and CEO, Dr. Gregory Demopulos, described LSDF as "an important catalyst for innovation in Washington State's life sciences. And through investments like the one for Omeros has left a legacy of creating jobs and improving health and will have a sustained impact on the people of the state."

DesRosier described LSDF as having been a "critical resource" in helping early stage companies survive so they could gain traction for new sources of funding, including attracting traditional investors.
 
One such beneficiary of LSDF grants is M3 Biotechnology, a young Seattle biotech company focused on commercializing a drug that would reverse neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's by re-growing brain cells.
 
"LSDF funding allowed us to cross the start-up 'valley of death' until we could gain funding traction," said Leen Kawas, the 30-year-old CEO and president of M3 who recently announced completion of an over-subscribed A-Round that brought in nearly $10 million.

Because I was assisting Kawas with marketing and introductions while she was awaiting key grants from LSDF, I bit my lip for being unable to write about LSDF or its challenges with the legislature until her grants had been approved and there was no longer a conflict of interest.

I asked DesRosier if there was anything he wished LSDF had accomplished before the lawmakers struck it from future funding.

"I wish we had been able to create a more diversified revenue stream and not be dependent solely on state funding," he said.

Dr. Bruce Montgomery, perhaps the Northwest's most prominent biotech entrepreneur as well as the longest-term member of the LSDF board, may have best summed up the feeling of lost opportunity that the end of LSDF's life-science mission embodied for many.

"The best quote I can offer is the line from Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi': 'don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone,'" Montgomery replied to my request for a quote.
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State crowd-funding legislation to ease raising money for startups gets early legislative focus

A proposal that would permit entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million a year from small investors through what's known as crowd funding, which is seen as a tool to both facilitate the launch new companies and create jobs, will get its initial hearing before the Washington Legislature the end of this week.

 

Washington is among a handful of states where lawmakers have decided that no matter what finally happens with long-awaited implementation of a federal crowd-funding law, they want to move ahead at the state level to open new funding doors for entrepreneurs and startups. And the scheduled hearing Friday may suggest there's some momentum to get the bill passed soon.


The bill (HB2023) is viewed by legislative supporters, and there is no visible opposition, as "a tool for small-business growth all around the state" as well as a potential lure to attract would-be entrepreneurs in other states to move here to launch their business. Only state residents could raise equity under the proposed law and only state residents could buy shares in the companies.

 

Rep.  Cyrus Habib

The federal crowd-funding legislation was passed by Congress in the spring of 2012 as the JOBS Act and directed the Securities and Exchange Commission to come up with the rules that would allow entrepreneurs to begin raising funds under the act. The SEC has moved at a glacial pace in implementing the rules and may still be as much as a year away from final approval to allow crowd funding to begin.

 

If supporters of the bill in the Washington Legislature are successful, the state measure will become law and create the opportunity for entrepreneurs in this state to begin using crowd-funding to raise money from large groups of small investors, primarily on the Internet, before the federal legislation even becomes operative.

 

The fact that Washington and a handful of other states are pressing ahead without regard to what happens in Washington, D.C., is an example of a growing realization that it has become more workable for legislation and regulation to be done at the state level. The reason for that emerging sentiment isn't just the gridlock that allows little to get done in Washington, but also the brainlock that occurs when something does get approved in Congress and is then turned over to the bureaucracy and regulators to implement.

 

Rep. Jeff Morris

HB2023, sponsored by Rep. Cyrus Habib, whose 48th District spans Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, would like the federal act allow companies to raise up to $1 million a year from small investors. The Internet is viewed as the most likely vehicle to reach large numbers of those small investors, who would be permitted to invest a maximum of $2,000.

 

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, a key supporter of the state legislative proposal, is one who thinks state legislation will serve the needs of both start-up entrepreneurs and small investors who would like to have equity in such companies better than the eventual federal act.


"The federal crowd-funding law, even once rules are in place, is going to require companies to work through an intermediary and is likely to have compliance expenses that will be cost-prohibitive for many start-ups," said Morris.


Morris, who is a co-founder of the Northwest Energy Angels and former director of the Northwest Energy Technology Collaborative (NWETC) at the Washington Technology Center (WTC), is an angel investor far more knowledgeable on the topic of funding start-ups than might be expected of legislators.


The SEC has produced more than 500 pages of proposed rules as it nears the point, more than 18 months after the legislation was approved by Congress, of clearing the way for entrepreneurs to actually begin raising money under the act. But observers think the

90-day comment period will likely produce voluminous comments that will cause the SEC to extend the time when the rules actually go into effect until late this year or early next.

 

Habib says flatly it would be "highly undesirable" for entrepreneurs to have only the federal legislation to deal with in seeking to employ the crowd-funding concept of raising money and selling equity.

 

"I think it will be far easier for start-up entrepreneurs to deal with local regulators who, can design rules that fit our culture, that are less burdensome to issuers, and give us the opportunity to create our own fund-raising product," said Habib, a Seattle attorney who works with many small firms.

 

Habib's first attempt at the bill last session would have imposed an excise tax of 3 to 5 percent, a tax of up to $50,000 on a $1 million fund raise, with the explanation that it was necessary to cover costs the state would incur in things like more consumer protection for investors and added costs for state oversight of the crowd-funding activity.

 

But he has backed off of that in the current version, saying thatrather than imposing an excise tax, "we will give authority to regulators to decide what kind of a fee to impose on the entrepreneurs. The program has to pay for itself, but we decided it's best to leave that to the Department of Financial Institutions to determine what's necessary to achieve that."

 

It was Habib who made the observation that the bill would be a tool for economic development for all parts of the state.

"Using equity crowd funding for those who can't just start a business without money and don't happen to know a friendly millionaire will be a way to raise capital for small businesses anywhere in the state," Habib said.

 

And he and Morris both suggested that small economic development organizations or chambers of commerce could serve the role of gatekeeper, meaning someone to fill the legally required role of an entity to sign off on the legitimacy of the fund-raising effort, to say it wasn't a scam or fraud. Otherwise the gatekeepers would be attorneys, accountants or similar professionals who would be involved in reviewing the legitimacy of would-be entrepreneurs.

 

Scott Jarvis, director of the state Department of Financial Institutions, which has been working closely with lawmakers as the legislation has taken shape, says it is "closely monitoring the SEC's final action to be sure the state legislation avoids conflict with it or sends confusing messages."

 

He said lawmakers and his department must also provide some sort of cost benefit analysis to ensure that any costs incurred by the state or the agency must be provided for and that will depend, in part, on the size of the group of entrepreneurs seeking to raise money through crowd funding.

 

"To steal liberally from 'Field of Dreams,' there is a question as to'If we build it, will they come in sufficient numbers as to justify the costs,'" Jarvis quipped.

 

Among angel investors in favor of the proposed state legislation is Tom Simpson, longtime venture capitalist now head of the Spokane Angel Alliance, who suggests "it will broaden the capital-formation alternatives for certain unique, early-stage enterprises not otherwise candidates for traditional angel or v.c. funding."

 

 

In fact, Simpson shares the view of many angel investors that traditional funding won't likely follow crowd-funded businesses but adds "as long as everyone knows the pros and cons, I expect this form of fund raising to stimulate the growth of new, innovative businesses in this state."

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