Texas Biotech Leaders Doubt CPRIT Will Get Its Groove Back

1/24/14Follow @angelashah

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is back in business again, and is seeking a fresh start after a well-documented scandal. But many in the life sciences startup community are skeptical that the once-ambitious state agency will ever become a catalyst for creating high-impact biotech companies that could build on the state’s momentum in biomedical research.

CPRIT, as the agency is known, started in 2007 with a 10-year mandate to invest $3 billion of taxpayer money for cancer-related research, drug development, and prevention in Texas. But in 2012, the agency came under legislative and criminal scrutiny over improperly allocated grants. During the various allegations and investigations, CPRIT was put on a yearlong hiatus. And two months ago, Texas lawmakers imposed a series of reforms that allowed it to resume operations.

But many biotech entrepreneurs and investors worry that the agency will become a “mini-NIH” focused primarily on grants for academic research, not the kind of awards that go one step further into commercial development, which are needed to help small companies grow and create valuable new cancer drugs or diagnostics.

Bruce Given, COO of Arrowhead Research in Houston, says the only way the agency can hope to live up to its stated mission of curing cancer is to support young life sciences companies. Having a 10-year mandate to deliver results gives the agency the flexibility to be a patient investor, but that doesn’t mean it can wait forever. “The only way you can change outcomes in this time period is to focus on translation, company formation, and new products to the marketplace,” Given says.

Since the agency issued its first grants in 2009, an overwhelming majority of CPRIT funds have gone to research projects—380 awards for a total of $652 million. Product development awards, or those that target commercialization, numbered 13 for a total of $98 million. Everything came to a halt in May 2012 when Alfred Gilman, the former chief scientific officer of CPRIT and a Nobel laureate, resigned over concerns about how the state money was being handled.

And, the agency itself is trying to figure out where it will place its priorities. Its oversight committee will today discuss the issue with hopes of finalizing a policy later this spring.

Wayne Roberts, CPRIT’s new CEO, rejected the idea that the agency has lost the opportunity to play a major role in commercialization. Grant totals, so far, do not fully indicate what the agency is prepared to do, he added.

“Part of why they [in the Texas biotech community] would have that perception … Next Page »

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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  • Frank Grassler

    Angela, did you confront Roberts with the Oncolix problem of inconsistent treatment of their second application?

    • http://www.xconomy.com/texas Angela Shah

      Hi Frank. I did ask him about concerns from many entrepreneurs about the review process. CPRIT would not get into specific company applications.