Directors of the $12 billion California stem cell agency will consider a plan on Wednesday to strengthen its support of emerging companies, expand its portfolio and effectively increase the size of its awards.

The proposal would further cement the agency’s and the state of California’s role as an early-stage “angel” investor in fledgling stem cell and gene therapy companies.

The effort involves changes in the agency’s co-funding program which requires companies to match a certain percentage (20 to 40 percent) of the total cost of a research award made to them by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) as the stem cell and gene therapy research program is officially known.

The amounts of required co-funding can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

The proposal would allow recipients to use stock warrants instead of cash to meet the co-funding requirements. That would ease the immediate financial impact on companies having to come up with cash to receive an award for clinical trials and translational stage research.

Warrants give the holder (CIRM) the right to buy a specific number of shares of a company’s stock at a predetermined price within a certain time frame. CIRM is banned by the state Constitution from owning stock. CIRM, however, can sell the warrants it holds.

(For the history of the ban, see this item on the California Stem Cell Report: “Tentacles, Railroads and California Stem Cell Finances: Looking for Greater Returns.”

The theory behind the warrant plan is that it would widen the net, drawing in more companies to increase the likelihood of creating the “miracle” treatments that voters were led to expect by the ballot campaign that created the research program in 2004. So far, CIRM has not yet funded a stem cell or gene therapy that is available to the general public.

The proposal grew out of discussions last year, including a meeting last December of the CIRM directors’ IP and Industry Subcommittee, chaired by CIRM board member Steve Juelsgaard, former executive vice president of Genentech. The subcommittee meets at 9:30 a.m. PST on Wednesday to consider the latest warrant proposal.

“The issue that we were seeing is that, particularly for some of the very young companies, those that are still in the angel investing round or whatever, some of them were simply not able to come up with the amount of money needed for co-funding to be able to participate in the cirm programs,” Juelsgaard told the subcommittee last year.

(The transcript of that meeting can be found here. The slides presented at the time, which are different than the latest ones, can be found here.)

One test of whether a warrant approach would be productive is whether companies publicly support the matter on Wednesday. Last December, only 82 persons viewed the subcommittee’s online meeting. No representatives from companies spoke in favor of the warrant concept. In fact, other than CIRM officials, no one spoke for or against it.

Of course, CIRM probably has some idea privately of companies that might be receptive to using warrants instead of cash.

Information about the warrant proposal, including a term sheet, has been available on the CIRM website since Oct. 30. While CIRM has not posted background information for some of its meetings in a timely fashion, the term sheet and presentation slides came well ahead of the Nov. 8 meeting.

It is unclear whether CIRM has notified any companies that the proposal is being considered. Instructions for participating in the online meeting can be found on the agenda.

From the California Stem Cell Report