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Three palm trees by the ocean in Southern California

Back in 2004, when California's stem cell agency was little more than an idea in the minds of researchers, its backers predicted a gold rush of royalties that could inject $1.1 billion into state coffers.

This month, after more than 13 years, the first stem cell royalty check has finally found its way to the state.

The sum: $190,345.87.

The stem cell agency has hailed the $190,345.87 payment as historic, but has also declared it is “only a piece of the intended return.” Others described the payment as a “less than a drop in the bucket” and warned of excessive exuberance.

The royalties come as the agency, which is working to create therapies and cures for many fatal diseases, faces its own demise. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was created by voter approval of a ballot initiative in November 2004, but the terms of the ballot measure are finite.

Taxpayers voted to fund CIRM with $3 billion in state bonds. When that borrowed cash runs out in 2019, the research awards will cease and CIRM will wither away...