STEM CELL CHAMPION STEPS DOWN: new leadership for California program
By Don C. Reed
I am still a little in shock.
On June 23rd, Bob Klein resigned the leadership of the California stem cell program—which he began.
His initiative, Prop 71, the California Stem Cells for Research and Cures Act, became the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). In addition to having been the largest funder of the campaign (including taking out a loan on his house to help pay for it) Klein had led the oversight board as Chairperson for the first six and half years, most of that time without any salary at all.
Now he was retiring from the leadership of that great agency.
Who would follow him?
Two superb individuals, Dr. Frank Litvack and Jonathan Thomas, were competing for the chairmanship. Either would be an outstanding leader for our group, but there was only one job to offer.
After studying their biographies, I contacted both men, who were kind enough to allow me to interview them at length, each for about ninety minutes. I asked them every question I could think of, brought up every objection that might be thrown against their candidacy. I also offered them both my best “free advice” (“Free advice costs nothing, and it’s worth the price”—Alan King) on how they could best present themselves to the 29-member governing board, which would decide.
Also, I personally had to decide. As a member of the public, I would be allowed three minutes to speak my opinion on who should lead.
I had no vote, of course. My opinion was important only to myself.
But (after my family) the CIRM is the most important thing in my life. I had fought to give it life, standing on wind-swept street corners asking for petition signatures, attended a gazillion meetings, editorialized thousands of pages, babbled endlessly to anyone who would listen.
And now there would be a new leader? It would be wrong of me not to give my two cents’ worth on the most important decision for the program’s future.
It was actual pain, my stomach in knots for days, trying to decide which of the two men I would support.
I did not know which one I would back until the day before the meeting. I studied each man’s position paper until I could have made his presentation for him.
When I finally made up my mind, I contacted each one, and told him.
At the meeting, both men gave their speeches, which had been previously delivered at two subcommittees, so that everyone on the board had a chance to hear, and decide.
The two men were strikingly different in appearance.
Frank Litvack looks like a semi-retired weightlifter, white crewcut hair, very erect: he carries himself with genuine authority, a little intimidating.
Jonathan Thomas is slender, built for the bob and weave of basketball, darkhaired and cheerful, approachable, like someone you might ask directions from, if you were lost at the airport.
Their qualifications could not be more different.
Frank Litvack is a heart doctor and a great medical entrepreneur, capable of recognizing an idea with potential and making it real; he developed biomedical companies, like the one which owned the medicated heart stent, He could choose a stem cell therapy with the most potential, and drive it through to the patient’s bedside. A strong success like that might be our best hope to renew Prop 71.
Jonathan Thomas is a lawyer, investment counselor, and bond expert. He put together the funding for several multi-billion dollar government projects, like the highway connection for the Los Angeles harbor. If our funding source failed, he could use his experience to keep the CIRM alive; without funding, the best science in the world is meaningless.
Each man spoke for about 20 minutes. Both men nailed their speech. Litvack made me want to get up and do something to help the cause; Thomas gave me confidence that the financial battles could be won.
I remembered Henry Kissinger’s comment, that the most difficult decisions are always 51/49 percent.
And my friend Karen Miner’s. “If you are that torn, that conflicted, that means they are both good.”
Public comment was called for. I made the following statement:
“We are fortunate to have outstanding candidates for Chair. I contacted both, questioned them at length.
“In personality, Frank Litvack is a strong leader, explosive, charismatic, fun to be around. His answers to most questions were short, punchy, easy to follow.
“Jonathan Thomas on the other hand is quiet, not an exciting speaker. But he has a bulldog tenacity, which makes him unexpectedly persuasive. When I asked him a question, he would not only answer the question, but would come up with possible objections to his own answer, and answer those as well. He would never be distracted from the issue at hand, but kept coming back to it again and again, until every objection had been completely met. He is focused, and determined, and he basically wore me down.
“Frank Litvack is a highly successful entrepreneur, the active chair of five companies. This is evidence of his success in the business world—but it may also be a possible negative. With the best will in the world, his energies and commitments will necessarily be divided.
“Bob Klein also faced the problem of divided time; being chair of a real estate firm as well as leading the California stem cell program. His answer was to routinely work to exhaustion, sometimes to the point where I feared for his health. That is not a tenable solution, especially when five companies are involved.
“Jonathan Thomas views the job of chair as a full time one, requiring his 100% effort and commitment, year round. That is to my mind the only realistic assessment of the job.
“Almost certainly, the new chair will face huge financial challenges to our program. I asked both candidates: if the worst happened, and there were no General Obligation Bonds, what will you do?
“Litvack said (and if I am mischaracterizing him I ask that he be allowed to correct me) without general obligation bonds, there was no way to fund the program at its current level, and anyone who said otherwise was blowing smoke.
“Asked the same question, Thomas said he would first implement a short-term plan to stop the bleeding, and then develop a long-term financial plan. He laid it out, in about a fifteen minute answer. I do not pretend to understand it, but it appeared to be a mix of bonds, donations from charities and foundations, revenues from biomed, national government contributions, and other sources of funding. He said that such fundraising challenges has been a major part of his life for the past thirty years, and he was prepared, if necessary, to do it every day of his tenure. He has shown the ability to raise massive amounts of funding: projects involving literally billions of dollars.
“In entrepreneurship, Frank Litvack is wonderfully successful, having developed for example a company which manufactured the medicated heart stent and other valuable products.
“But Jonathan Thomas has also demonstrated the ability to pick a winner in the biomedical world. Many years ago, when stem cell research as an industry was just getting started, he showed foresight by picking just one company to support: Advanced Cell Technology. Jonathan Thomas helped Mike West raise the funding he needed. From that humble beginning, the field of biomedicine began.
“In a time when complicated financing may mean success or failure for the California stem cell program—Jonathan Thomas’s unique skillset makes him the essential choice.
“As a patient advocate, I strongly recommend Jonathan Thomas for the Chairmanship of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee of the California stem cell program. ”
The board went into closed session for three hours; it seemed like days.
When they returned, the votes were counted.
By a narrow majority, 14-11, Jonathan Thomas was elected chair of the California stem cell program.
Bob congratulated Jonathan Thomas on “beginning a journey you will never forget”. The man who prefers to be called JT told a self-deprecating story about basketball great coach John Wooten, whose talentless son tried to play but mainly rode the bench—but was able to come in and help at an important moment. I don’t understand basketball, but his meaning was clear.
Old chair and new shook hands.
There was a long line of people who wanted to speak to Dr. Litvack afterward. Everyone knew this was a giant in the field.
I was nervous to approach him, but did anyway, and when it was my turn, I blurted out that I really respected his greatness and I hoped he would help us, because the program really needed him.
Fortunately, he was as large in spirit as he was in accomplishment, and was gracious.
It is my hope that a way will be found to get him on the board, because his knowledge of making products succeed would be enormously valuable.
The next day was the official transfer of authority.
As one of his last acts in office, Bob asked that his wife Danielle be acknowledged. An advocate for many causes, and a strong force for positive change, Danielle is pretty like a movie star, and the love just shines between the two of them.
It broke me down when Bob Klein read the swearing-in oath, and Jonathan Thomas raised his right hand and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of California. I was typing, but I could not see the keys anymore. My stomach was shaking, wracked with hopefully silent sobs—but nobody noticed, because every person in the room was having similar difficulties.
And then Bob gave his last official remarks.
“It has been the privilege of my life working with this board and the staff of CIRM. We are on a mission for all our families, in our state, our country, and the world.
“With the tremendous outpouring of dedication and effort of all involved, including especially the patient advocate groups, I believe we will be successful beyond our wildest dreams.
“It is the dedication of the people in this room, the staff and the empowered scientists, who will see this dream of California through: to reduce human suffering.
“And so I thank you,” he said, and stopped.
The first action of the new leadership of Jonathan Thomas was an ICOC vote that Bob Klein would receive the title, “Chair Emeritus” , to honor his contribution forever.
On behalf of all who suffer, and their families, I would like to add my appreciation, with this small poem.
HOW DO YOU SAY “THANK YOU”– TO SOMEONE WHO CHANGED THE WORLD?
The California stem cell program has the glory of a flag unfurled.
But how do you say “Thank you!”—to someone who changed the world?
Like a farmer who plants a field in new ways, growing food from exhausted land,
You brought life to a new field of medicine, though others did not understand.
On a radio show once, an enemy of the research came on the air to insult you,
But you would not let the anger take over, talked to him as if he would consult with you;
Vilely, he compared you to a Nazi, Joseph Mengele, the angel of death,
But you said, “thank you for raising that important question”, without even pausing for breath;
You explained to him what the research really was, the hope of cure, dawn of new day,
And at the end the enemy said, “I never thought of it that way.”
But it is not enough to think anew, to have a little bit of hope,
Concrete relief for suffering is needed, like throwing a drowning man a rope.
You raised a billion for diabetes, long before Prop 71;
But three billion for stem cells? That will help everyone.
Many people gave their energies to Prop 71, nothing happens by itself,
But an idea without a leader– gathers dust upon the shelf.
You dreamed and designed it, raised money to help it grow;
Exhausting days of labor– no one would ever know;
The voters said yes, overwhelmingly, fifty-nine point six per cent,
California supported cure research, the message was plainly sent.
The battle was not over; obstacles confronted us, every day,
But every day the community fought back; our initiative was here to stay.
The magnificent board of governors, Independent Citizens Oversight Committee,
Struggles with near-impossible decisions, in the light of day, where all can see.
At the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, narrow opening to the King Street address,
The staff of C.I.R.M. brings the program to life, quiet heroism, muscling toward success.
And twelve new buildings have sprung up, shining centers of tomorrow,
Where scientists work to save lives, ease suffering, and to diminish sorrow;
There is no way to thank you properly, for this shining Prop 71,
Except to pledge we will protect it, continuing what was so nobly begun.
You brought a state together, Bob, your voice an inspiring call;
The people in this room stand united—we love you, one and all. –June 22, 2011