WisBusiness: Stemina CEO Donley predicts next president will increase stem cell funding

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – Beth Donley, former general counsel for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), said Thursday that she expects the next president to loosen the reins on funding human embryonic stem cell research.

But whoever is elected – Republican or Democrat – will face stiff opposition from some quarters in Congress, said Donley, who spoke at a luncheon sponsored by WisBusiness.com, Madison Magazine and the Madison Club.

Donley is now the CEO of Stemina Biomarker Discoveries, a new stem cell company based at University Research Park.
She also headed WiCell, WARF’s stem cell subsidiary. She said Stemina will initially focus on developing ways to identify drugs that may cause birth defects.

Donley’s comments come on the heals of statements by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias A. Zerhouni that embryonic stem cell research should be expanded.

His thoughts clash with those of President George Bush, Zerhouni’s boss. Bush has twice vetoed legislation that would expand research on new embryonic lines.

Donley noted that former President Bill Clinton did not expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research – in part because the country was not comfortable with the ethics of the science.

She said Bush is roundly criticized for drawing an arbitrary line limiting funding to 21 stem cell lines created before 2001.

“At least he got things started,” said Donley, who co-founded Stemina last year with UW-Madison researcher Gabriela Cezar.

Donley said federal funding for adult stem cells research is much greater than that for embryonic stem cells.

“Both kinds of research are important,” she said. “But adult stem cells have already differentiated. You can’t drive them backwards. Embryonic stem cells are key because can become anything in the body.”

Donley spoke at length on her “winding” career that lead her from a career that includes working at a bank, attending law school, and rising up the legal ranks at WARF – while picking up two masters degrees – before starting Stemina. She also has two adolescent children.

Donley traced her achievements to her mother, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack – who entered law school when Donley was a teen.

“My mother asked me why I would want to leave a perfectly good job at WARF to take on the risk of starting my own company,” she said. “I told her it was her fault.”

Donley said Stemina has raised $1.2 million from angel investors and other backers and should soon take in another $300,000 to complete the first round of funding. It also has received $1 million in state grants and low interest loans from the Commerce Department.

She praised state efforts to promote nascent biotech firms, but said her company and others sometimes have trouble attracting top scientific talent from the coasts.

But Donley said any efforts by venture capitalists to lure Stemina to California will be rejected as long as she is in charge.

“We are staying in Madison and if all goes well, we will grow aggressively here.”