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La Jolla in the top four for stem cell institute

La Jolla has moved one step closer to becoming the new home of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a body charged with doling out $3 billion of state funding for stem cell research. But San Diego’s business leaders are fuming about what they said were inaccuracies in the system used for grading the 10 proposals, four of which have been chosen as finalists.

While the new facility will only house about 50 people, business leaders, politicians and academics all over the state know that having the headquarters of the institute in their neighborhood will be a coup in more ways than one. The home of the state agency, created last November by Proposition 71 to distribute up to $300 million a year in stem cell research funds, is expected to be a magnet for biotech companies and top stem cell researchers. As a result, the state’s top biotech hubs scrambled to put together proposals that they hoped would woo the headquarters.

The request for proposals contained certain minimum requirements, including proximity to an international airport and public transport systems. The evaluation team tasked with assessing the proposals decided April 12 that only four of the proposals met these minimum requirements. These remaining cities were assessed using a scoring matrix that allocated points for each location based on a number of criteria.

San Diego ranked third out of the four finalists, after San Francisco and Sacramento and ahead of Emeryville. Proposals from Los Angeles and San Jose were among those discarded.

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Immediately upon viewing the results of the evaluation team, champions of La Jolla’s bid began to call foul play. San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. President Julie Meier-Wright sent a letter to Robert Klein, chairman of the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, the same day the results were announced that questioned the accuracy of the team’s findings.

“We are mystified by San Diego’s rankings in certain categories,” reads the letter, “such as the number of medical personnel proximate to the headquarters location, and the number of leading universities, research hospitals and/or private research institutions within 45 minutes of the headquarters.”

Jane Signaigo-Cox, senior vice president of Economic Development at the Economic Development Corp., expanded upon Meier-Wright’s comments. She said that San Diego’s proposal followed a strict reading of the request, listing only qualified professionals within 45 minutes of Torrey Pines Mesa. In contrast, she said San Francisco’s bid listed professionals scattered over nine counties, including some Signaigo-Fox said were 60 miles away from the proposed site of the facility.

“So we’re not comparing apples to apples,” said Signaigo-Fox. “That’s a big one because that was worth a lot of points, that was worth 60 points.”

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With just 42 points separating the top three choices, the scoring in this category could well be crucial.

San Diego was not the only city to question the evaluation team’s findings. Jesse Blout, head of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Economic Development and one of the key orchestrators of San Francisco’s proposal, said his office is also considering debating the validity of some of the results.

Blout said despite some minor infractions, however, he has so far been impressed with the selection process.

“I think as much as we would like to think otherwise, these things tend to be more of an art than a science,” said Blout. “I think it’s a reasonably good job. Everybody could probably quibble over their specific point totals, but I think on balance it’s a reasonably good job.”

John Reed, president and CEO of La Jolla’s Burnham Institute and a member of the subcommittee tasked with finding a location for the new agency, candidly expressed his disbelief at some of the evaluations made by the team.

“Those of us that are from San Diego who saw the first pass analysis of this, that was performed by a group of people all in the Bay Area, were interested to find that in the very first category ... we only ripped out 22 out of 60 points. The Bay Area got 55 out of 60. We were just totally flabbergasted at that.”

The good news for La Jolla is that, despite its bronze medal-position thus far, the race is by no means over. The evaluation team plans to make site visits to each of the four locations shortlisted and may choose to alter its scoring after these visits. A visit to San Diego’s proposed site on Torrey Pines Mesa is scheduled for later this month.

In addition, the evaluation team has agreed that each of the four finalists will be allowed to put their complaints in writing. These will then be discussed by the committee, which may authorize some adjustments to the scoring matrix.

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Reed said he hoped some adjustments will be made.

Reed also dismissed any rumors that the headquarters of the institute might be split between La Jolla and San Francisco, an idea that had previously been suggested as a possibility by Robert Klein, president of the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee.