Thursday, March 29, 2012

Colorado bankers answer call for small-business access to capital

Bankers have been called nasty names for years by small-business owners who have been denied credit, but the Colorado Bankers Association has launched an effort that could change that.

Through a website,, Colorado bankers are beginning to refer customers who don't qualify for their loans to other organizations around the state that might find a way for the cash-strapped owner to find capital he or she needs to grow.

I've been covering small business in Colorado for more than 20 years, and this effort is the first I've seen between agencies of government and large commercial banks to solve the "access to capital" problem that is a perennial complaint of small-business owners who don't qualify for bank loans.

If you try it, it might actually work.

When you go to the website, you see a cup of coffee beside a napkin with a hand-drawn diagram describing a business owner's route to successful financing. Below the napkin, three links are shown to get you started:
  1. Before you Seek Funding
  2. Steps to Securing Funding
  3. Advice and Resources.
Click on "Advice and Resources" and you'll find a list of organizations that joined with the bankers to create the guide, all conveniently linked so you can go directly to them for more information. The list starts with ACCION, a small-business lender that operates in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, whose reputation for actually lending money to businesses has grown large over the last three years.

The list continues with: the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, a statewide chamber of commerce; the Colorado Enterprise Fund, a nonprofit lending source that can loan a business up to $250,000; the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, a state agency; the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, another active lender to small business; the Denver Office of Economic Development and 10 more resources available to small businesses looking for financing they cannot get from banks.

But the member banks of the CBA are all supporting the effort to find money for firms and companies they cannot make their own customers. That is the unusual and unprecedented nature of this most recent effort to solve the "access to capital" problem.

"All of the CBA members were involved in the project," said Christie Drumm, vice president of communications for Wells Fargo & Co. in Colorado.

She said Wells Fargo, which was the nation's and Colorado's number one lender of SBA guaranteed loans in 2011, is instructing its small-business loan officers throughout the state to spread the word about the bankers' association website in order to educate business owners looking for credit that "there are other options" if traditional bank lending is not available to them.

Caroline Joy, who was the project director for launching for the bankers' association, said the effort grew out of Gov. John Hickenlooper's Colorado Blueprint, a statewide plan for economic development.

The blueprint "saw a need to demystify the lending process," Joy said, and the bankers' association interepreted that citizen demand as a cry for "pulling down the walls of the silos" that separated lenders and other institutions who were ready to help small businesses grow and create new jobs.

"If a bank can't help you," Joy said, "we want to help you find another place that can."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In the Chemo Room: A lesson in clinical trials

I was treated to a little of the cancer-fighting establishment's scientific bias against alternative treatments last week, but the experience left me unconvinced that a plant-based diet is not helping me keep my cancer in check.

"There's no evidence for that," my doc, Wells Messersmith said when I asked if the diet could  have had any influence on results of a scan taken March 2 and compared with an earlier scan from Jan. 19.

Messersmith methodically measured the 10 largest tumors (the biggest being about one inch long) still growing in my lungs, chest cavity and abdominal region March 9 to show me how progress or the lack of it against the cancer is determined by the folks who conduct clinical trials of new drugs.

An independent report written by a reviewer Messersmith said could be in Japan, India or anywhere else in the United States, suggested the numbers of tumors and the size of existing tumors had increased in me while I was taking the study drug Estybon (rigsertib) for six weeks this year.

But my doc was skeptical and liked to take his own measurements even though he did expect the latest scan to show my cancer had gotten worse. If it had, I would be withdrawn from the clinical trial: "You wouldn't want to keep taking it [and feeling the side effects] if the drug wasn't doing you any good, would you?" he asked me.

So he measured up my tumors and found that overall the cancer in me had grown by 13 percent over the six weeks. He questioned whether one shaded area of the scan actually represented more tumors, as the first reviewer seemed to be suggesting, and he noted that "worse," as described by most clinical trials, usually was a 20 percent overall growth of the cancer.

My CEA (a tumor marker in the blood) also had risen from 40.3 on Feb. 15 to 41.1 on March 9, another indicator things were not necessarily getting better inside me.

Still, Messersmith wanted to keep me on the drug for another month and scan me again at the end of March or mid April, right around tax time. He said he expected the cancer would continue to get worse and then I would be pulled from the study and enrolled in another trial to try to keep me alive.

He actually mentioned that a "cost/benefit" analysis is what determines whether a patient remains in the trial or not. The maker of the drug, Onconova Therapeutics Inc., Newtown, Pa., provides me the drug for free and picks up all the extra costs of my treatment related to using the drug. But like any business, the company doesn't want to keep paying for all that expensive stuff -- costs of the drugs and scans can easily run into five figures, sometimes six -- if the trial shows the drug is not doing the patient any good.

That's the most significant lesson I have learned in participating in two clinical trials. The drug manufacturers, while hoping for the best for the patients testing their experimental drugs, are businesses that don't want to waste money where the drug isn't working the way it should, even if it is keeping rapid deterioration of the patient's condition at bay.

All the consent forms for these trials inform the patient they have been chosen for participation because standard treatments for their late-stage cancers have already proven ineffective; the cancer inside them might run riot if the trial drug doesn't help slow or stop its spread.

Those who advocate alternative treatments for cancer often criticize the scientific, medical and business communities that test new drug treatments for recruiting late-stage patients to a trial that also calls on those patients to forego alternative treatments while enrolled in the study.

That's why the cancer-fighting establishment is known -- and also criticized for -- testing drugs that provide a late-stage patient with only a month or two of life, and effectively write off the patient's life as collateral damage when the drugs don't work.

That old practice -- now cancer fighters are much more enlightened about the "potential" benefits of alternative treatments -- was also made clear to me by my experience with this new drug. A one-month commitment to the drug is not very long.

But Messersmith and his team at the University of Colorado Hospital and the Anschutz Cancer Center have allowed me to continue my "alternative" ways through this trial: a plant-based diet, some additional Vitamin C and flaxseed-oil supplements.

I admit that when Messersmith told me I was the only patient in the trial he knew who was experimenting with a plant-based diet, I rushed out to the grocery store to buy three half-gallons of "dairy" ice cream and looked forward to a nice juicy steak.

But then I re-thought about making that choice.

No evidence that a plant-based diet restores the natural immune system to a point where it can fight cancer by itself is not necessarily evidence that it does not.

And if I am the only patient on a plant-based diet involved in this trial and my cancer hasn't grown more significantly in a month on a lower dose of the drug than it did during the first six weeks on it, maybe I'll be manufacturing some evidence the drug companies should pay attention to. We'll see.

In the meantime, it's back to beans and nuts for me. I'll cheat a little with that ice cream still in my freezer, but not much. And if I last the month, there may still be plenty of time for that juicy, half-cooked steak. Scotch on the side.