Texas Biotech Leaders Doubt CPRIT Will Get Its Groove Back

1/24/14Follow @angelashah

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the agency has and does respect the contribution private companies can bring to CPRIT’s mission. What should help illustrate this, he added, are provisions in the law that require leaders to set out policy priorities on which projects they should fund.

“Previously, this wasn’t very clear to the public or the media or the legislature, as to what we were trying to do,” Roberts says. “I need something to measure my progress by. That is what is going to take place. It’s very important.”

Even as agency leaders decide on the best way to divvy up its funds, a key component of its ability to support commercialization is missing: its chief product development officer—the person vetting commercialization proposals at the frontline. The job became open after Jerald Cobbs resigned in November 2012. (Last month, he was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for improperly awarding an $11 million grant to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, one of the grants that led to CPRIT’s moratorium.)

While the agency searches for Cobbs’s replacement, some in the life sciences community say it will be difficult to attract high-caliber talent. Not only is there the matter of a pay cut—counterparts in the private sector can make multiples of a government job that tops out at $219,000—but because of the past controversy, they feel that any candidate would have a target on his back and, so, be wary of taking on the sort of risks inherent in life sciences innovation.

“This could have helped Texas move part of the way to get caught up to Boston and San Francisco, and, boy, they just completely botched it,” says Arrowhead’s Given, who was on CPRIT’s commercialization review committee the first year. “I just view this as a big lost opportunity.”

Some question whether Roberts, a longtime and respected Austin hand—most recently as an associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston—is the best candidate to help CPRIT fulfill the agency’s commercialization priorities in the years it has left.

“I know a lot more about the science and commercialization of it than a lot of people may want to give me credit for,” Roberts says. “I view my responsibility here as making sure the train runs on time and stays on track. If I see something that calls into question the integrity of CPRIT’s processes, I’ll call it out.”

“I’m at a stage in my career where it is not worth my personal reputation to do something that gets called into question,” he added. “I want to see CPRIT succeed.”

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.