CIRM Leadership

Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, Interim President and CEO

Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD is the interim President and CEO of California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Thomas was previously the Chair of the CIRM governing Board from June 2011 to March 2023.

He is a Co-Founding Partner at Saybrook Capital (“Saybrook”), an investment banking and private equity firm based in Santa Monica, California. In his legal career prior to Saybrook, Thomas clerked for White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler in the last year of the Carter Administration and for the Honorable George Mackinnon in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He later practiced at Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles.

Long interested in the biological sciences, Thomas majored in Biology and History at Yale, where he graduated summa cum laude. As a George C. Marshall Scholar at Oxford, he then earned a PhD with a medical focus in Commonwealth History. He subsequently returned to Yale for a JD at the Yale Law School. While there, Thomas retained an involvement with biology by teaching courses on the legal implications of genetic engineering and the impact of disease on history.

Thomas has a long-standing commitment to patient advocacy. He spent more than 15 years on the Board of the Crippled Children’s Society of Southern California and served as chair for four years. The organization, now called AbilityFirst, assists children with spinal cord injuries and mental disabilities that could be targets of stem cell therapies. Thomas is an Honorary member of the AbilityFirst Board.

Vito Imbasciani, PhD, MD, Chair, Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee (ICOC)

Dr. Vito Imbasciani was sworn in as Board Chair of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) on March 28, 2023.

Before joining CIRM, Imbasciani served as the Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) since 2015. As Secretary, he created several new programs within the department, including forging eight independent California veteran homes into a unified system, establishing programs for veterans in state prisons, and supporting the 58 county veteran service offices.

In addition, Imbasciani has been a practicing urologic surgeon for 30 years, treating a mostly older population suffering from congenital and acquired conditions.

Imbasciani completed medical school at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and his surgical and urologic residencies at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the West Haven VA Hospital in Connecticut. At the University of Vermont, he worked in the laboratory assisting in studies of neurodegenerative diseases.

He earned MA and PhD degrees from Cornell University, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Rome, Italy in 1973. He held academic teaching positions at the University of Florida, Cornell University and Middlebury College in Vermont.

He also served for 27 years as a surgeon in the United States Army Medical Corps, with four wartime deployments that exposed him to battlefield medicine and post-acute care.

Maria Gonzalez Bonneville, Vice Chair, Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee (ICOC)

Maria Bonneville, Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance

Maria Bonneville is the Vice Chair of the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee (ICOC) at CIRM and has been with the agency since 2011. She works directly with the CIRM Board to advance CIRM’s mission and to lead the development and coordination of Board policies and procedures. She also works with California state legislators and staff members to keep the public up to date on the full scope of CIRM’s activities.

Before joining CIRM, Maria was the Special Assistant to former Treasurer Bill Lockyer at the California State Treasurer’s office where she represented the Treasurer in state business matters with the state and local government and the business community in the Bay Area. She was also the Northern California Finance Director for the Lockyer Committee and was responsible for fundraising programs for the re-election of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer for Treasurer. Maria also has extensive experience with product development, product marketing, E-commerce, and public relations.

She received a Bachelor of Arts in political sciences from the University of California, Berkeley.

Rafael Aguirre-Sacasa, JD, General Counsel

Rafael has over 25 years of experience in corporate law and joins CIRM after seven years at Standard BioTools (formerly Fluidigm Corp). There, he provided worldwide commercial, strategic and transaction legal support for all functions of the NASDAQ-listed life science company.

Prior to this role, he held a variety of management positions and provided legal support for a wide range of commercial, intellectual property and corporate matters at Teradici Corporation, PMC-Sierra, Inc., Autodesk, Hyperion solutions, Grupo Financiero and Xilinx Inc.

Rafael received his bachelor’s degree in history and government from Dartmouth College and law degree from the University of California-Hastings. As CIRM’s new General Counsel, Rafael will support the President, Board (ICOC), management and working groups on all legal matters affecting the agency.

Rosa Canet-Avilés, PhD, Vice President of Scientific Programs & Education

Rosa Canet-Avilés is the Vice President of Scientific Programs at CIRM and leads a team that actively works towards identifying the most promising basic and early stage research in stem cells and other areas related to regenerative medicine and enabling their success. Under her leadership, the Scientific Programs team manages a portfolio of hundreds of active programs that include basic mechanistic research, discovery, exploratory research, and identification of potential candidates for translational development. Rosa is also responsible for the internal and external collaborative networks and consortia that will result from the early-stage scientific programs managed by this group. Together with the rest of the leadership team, Rosa is responsible for the strategic alignment and connectivity with other CIRM programs (e.g., clinical networks, knowledge and data networks, registries, educational and communication portals) with the ultimate goal of translating all these efforts into cures.

Rosa is a familiar face at the agency, serving as a Science Officer with CIRM from 2008 to 2014. During that time, she helped oversee the development of CIRM’s Translational program, managed a broad portfolio of projects and organized workshops on Parkinson’s Disease and Autism amongst other. She brings nearly two decades of experience developing and leading multi-stakeholder initiatives across biopharma, government and nonprofit organizations. In her recent role as the Director of Strategic Alliances at the Eisai Center for Genetics Guided Dementia Discovery (G2D2), as part of the leadership team at G2D2, Rosa was responsible amongst other for the strategic planning of alliances and external innovation partnerships in the neurobiology business unit. As such, Rosa was instrumental in driving growth to the organization through the identification and management of external innovation opportunities. During the previous 7 years, Rosa was the Director of Neuroscience Research Partnerships at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), Rosa was responsible for the development and management of the Neuroscience Research Partnership portfolio of projects and programs that includes: the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) for Alzheimer’s Disease (AMP-AD) 1 and 2, AMP Parkinson’s Disease (AMP-PD), AMP Schizophrenia (AMP SCZ), the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative 3 (ADNI3) and the Biomarkers Consortium Neuroscience Steering Committee (BC NSC). Rosa managed different teams in coordination with NIH, FDA, non-profit organizations and industry leaders.

Rosa earned her PhD degree in neuroscience from the School of Medicine at Leeds University, UK. She also holds a BS in organic chemistry from the Central University of Barcelona.

Abla Creasey, PhD, Vice President of Therapeutics Development

Abla Creasey, Vice President of Therapeutics and Strategic InfrastructureAbla Creasey is the Vice President of Therapeutics Development. In this capacity, she leads all programs in Translational and Clinical development, with a focus on advancing these therapies to marketing approval. Abla has been instrumental in building and managing CIRM’S clinical portfolio of diverse therapeutic areas including oncology, neurology, ophthalmology, and others.  She has led the CIRM Therapeutics Team since 2018 and delivered on a key strategic goal to identify, recruit, and develop fifty innovative clinical stage projects and manage them to success. Eight of the current 64 FDA approved projects with Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapies Designation are among the Therapeutics grants portfolio. Abla also oversees Translation, Clinical and Marketing Approval Advisory Panels that work with grantees on all aspects of product development including preclinical, clinical, regulatory, manufacturing, project management, and strategic topics.

Abla has extensive experience in research and development, including clinical trial strategy and operations, as well as biologics process development & manufacturing, regulatory, and overall strategic product development.  Prior to joining CIRM in 2016, she was at Johnson & Johnson for 12 years. While there, Abla held multiple senior level positions, including Senior Scientific Director in Pharmaceutical Development & Manufacturing Sciences (PDMS) at Janssen Therapeutics. Prior to that, she was an Executive Director, heading drug delivery, pharmacology, analytical characterization, clinical & quality at Advanced Technologies & Regenerative Medicine (ATRM), another J&J company. Prior to ATRM, Abla was Vice President of Biological Sciences at ALZA Corporation, where she headed discovery efforts in formulation, preclinical and oral drug delivery. Before joining ALZA in 2004, Abla held senior level positions in R&D, clinical development, and regulatory affairs within the biotechnology industry, including Chiron Corporation and Cetus Corporation. Abla received in 2008 the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for her biotechnology contributions. She served on the Mills College Board, Oakland, Ca, and the Dean of UC Berkeley School of Public Health Advisory Board. She has 23 patents and authored over 50 publications.

Abla received a B.S. in biology from the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California, and earned her Ph.D. in medical microbiology from the University of California, Berkeley.  She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine in infectious disease, biochemistry, and immunology.

Jennifer Mielnicki Lewis, Vice President of Operations

Jennifer Lewis is the Vice President of Operations at CIRM leading the Grants Management, Finance, and Information Technology functions for the agency.  In this role she provides strategic operational and policy direction, ensures awardee funding is monitored and in compliance with appropriate regulations, identifies opportunities to streamline processes and enhance portfolio reporting, and oversees technology solutions to enable CIRM operations to work in a collaborative and fast-paced environment.

Jennifer joined the grants management team at CIRM in 2016 and during that time has contributed to the rigorous grantmaking engine through portfolio oversight and management, implementing electronic grant records, database improvements and operationalizing the grantmaking of funding partnerships. In addition, during the wind-down of Proposition 71, Jennifer oversaw the administrative and research budgets ensuring that CIRM could make the most impact with the remaining funds.

Before joining CIRM, Jennifer was a senior member of the program team at the Stuart Foundation where she made funding recommendations, created grantee communications, and developed system and process enhancements. Jennifer’s experience has focused on operational roles spanning the philanthropic, nonprofit, private and government sectors. She also has had experience in organizational development, project management, and financial analysis.

Jennifer received a Bachelor of Hospitality Administration from Boston University and holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Shyam Patel, PhD, Senior Director of Business Development and Alliance Management

Shyam Patel is Senior Director of Business Development and Alliance Management and is responsible for managing CIRM’s Industry Alliance Program and strategic partnerships. Shyam’s team engages with the biotech industry to create visibility for CIRM’s mission and to facilitate industry partnership and commercialization opportunities for CIRM’s portfolio. Shyam led the expansion of CIRM’s Industry Alliance Program to establish a collaborative network of venture investors, biotech companies and large biopharma partners. He also manages CIRM’s partnerships including the Cure Sickle Cell partnership with NHLBI, iPSC repository partnership with Fujifilm CDI and data sharing collaboration with Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Shyam joined CIRM in late 2016, initially as part of Dr. Sambrano’s Portfolio Development & Review team where he managed the application, review and approval processes for Discovery, Translational and Clinical Programs. Prior to CIRM, Shyam was CEO and Chief Science Officer for NanoNerve, Inc., where he and his team developed tissue engineered medical devices for tissue regeneration. He was also on the teaching faculty in Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in biomaterials, stem cells and tissue engineering and medical device development.

Shyam received a B.S. in Bioengineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Bioengineering from the Universities of California Berkeley & San Francisco.

Gil Sambrano, PhD, Vice President of Portfolio Development and Review

Gil Zambrano, Director of Portfolio Development and ReviewGil is the Vice President of Portfolio Dvelopment and Review and leads the team responsible for selecting the highest quality stem cell-based projects for CIRM funding from Discovery to Clinical programs.  His team builds and cultivates a world class team of expert reviewers and directs a rigorous review process through the governing board-appointed Grants Working Group (GWG).

Gil joined CIRM in 2005 as the first Scientific Officer. During his tenure, Gil has contributed to building the vision of CIRM by leading and advancing the scientific review process, constructing grants administration policies, guiding early development of the Grants Management System, and managing the training grant programs. He has been a key point of contact to help applicants and grantees identify appropriate partnering opportunities and navigate the CIRM solicitation and application process.  He leads the conduct of GWG review meetings and has been the primary liaison with patient advocate and scientific members of the GWG.

Prior to CIRM, he was an assistant professor in the department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at UCSF. In 2001, Gil took on a notable position to coordinate efforts of the Alliance for Cellular Signaling, a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary consortium of scientists led by the Nobel laureate, Alfred G. Gilman, whose goal is to understand the basic principles that regulate signal transduction in cells.

His scientific education includes a B.S. in biology from the University of Texas at El Paso and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of California, San Diego. Gil trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California San Francisco.

Pouneh Simpson, Director of Finance

Pouneh Simpson, Director of Finance

Pouneh Simpson is the Director of Finance and oversees CIRM’s accounting, budget, procurement, contracts and business services functions. Pouneh manages the strategic financial planning and financial forecasting of expenditures and receipts, including bond proceeds and commercial paper receipts. She reports quarterly to the ICOC and Finance Subcommittee on finance, budgeting and financial planning to ensure that the organization complies with Proposition 14 and all State of California laws and regulations. Pouneh also reports to the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee on an annual basis on the financial practices and performance of the CIRM.

Pouneh started her state career as a Jesse Unruh Fellow in the State Assembly. Pouneh continued in the Executive Branch first at the Department of Finance and then at various state agencies in the areas of finance and administration. She was the Governor’s Appointee to the California Department of Veterans Affairs as the Chief Financial Officer of the Veterans Homes. She also served as Chief of Administration at the Office of Inspector General and State Personnel Board and Chief Financial officer of the California Prison Industry.

She received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Organizational Studies from the University of California Davis and Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

Koren Temple-Perry, Senior Director, Marketing & Communications

Koren joins CIRM after spending the last 15 years translating complex scientific information into compelling content for diverse audiences. As a former journalist, she has worked extensively in the areas of patient and community health education, health advocacy, and scientific communications for hospitals, research institutes, and healthcare organizations.

Prior to joining CIRM, she founded Temple Communications LLC, which specializes in scientific copywriting and marketing communications for public health organizations. She served as consulting communications director for March for Science, where she led the media and communications campaign for the global marches. She spent many years as a communications writer and digital marketing manager at academic medical centers throughout New York.

Koren earned her master’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree in communications from Santa Clara University. Her passion for improving health equity led to her appointment as District 5 Commissioner to the Alameda County Public Health Commission and to the Board of Directors for Jamal’s Helping Hands, a non-profit dedicated to helping families of color navigate rare diseases.