See You at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference
Techies gathered last week for the annual show-and-tell/schmoozefest known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Now it’s the biotechies turn to have their big conference of the year. The madhouse known as the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference officially starts today, for the 29th year, at San Francisco’s Union Square.
I’m here as always, looking forward to a packed lineup of meetings with executives and investors dreaming big about creating important new drugs, devices, diagnostics, and life science tools. Relationships are the glue that hold this high-risk, high-reward industry together even as it has grown up and spread around the world. While anyone can pick up the phone, use Skype, Twitter, LinkedIn, e-mail, or instant messages, there’s no substitute for what happens when thousands of people cram into a five-block radius in the global capital for innovation.
Attendance is said to be up 20 percent this year, to about 8,680 registered for the official conference at the Westin St. Francis. But that’s only a rough estimate, because so many people, and so much action, really happens behind the scenes at neighboring hotels. That’s where all the venture capitalists, investment bankers, biotech executives, and Big Pharma dealmakers talk about how they can work together, usually while breaking bread or sipping a glass of wine. There is so much of this going on that a couple of other conferences—Biotech Showcase and OneMedForum—have piggybacked on this event in recent years. These satellite conferences, as you might say, are hoping to capture some of the energy by setting up a place where small companies can present if they aren’t one of the fortunate 350 who get to present at the four-day JP Morgan conference.
Steve Gillis, one of the veterans I know who has been to more than 20 of these conferences, has seen the whole thing evolve. He used to come to pitch his previous companies—Immunex and Corixa—and now he has a different view through his work as a venture capitalist with Arch Venture Partners in Seattle.
“We used to joke that the rooms in the St. Francis are small and the hallways are narrow, so it would always give you the feeling of enthusiasm in the crowd, even if it wasn’t there,” Gillis says.
That atmosphere suited original organizer Hambrecht & Quist, as it sought to drum up enthusiasm and be the go-to investment banker for hot biotech companies looking to go public. The conference took its next step when other investment banks arrived on the scene, setting up shop at nearby hotels to try to pry away business from H&Q, Gillis says. “That was a big transformation,” he says.
VC firms soon followed to promote their companies to investment bankers looking for IPO prospects. Then Big Pharma started coming out in force, using this meeting to scout for biotech companies with innovative products that could fit into their pipelines. Squeezing your way through those narrow St. Francis hallways to hear a public presentation is really only a small part of the picture. “There’s plenty of action at the St. Francis, but there’s a lot of action everywhere else too,” Gillis says.
The other thing that happens at an event like this, is an absolute ton of impromptu interactions, which I actually wrote about last year. This is about seeing old friends walking down the street, in the line at Starbucks, and mingling in the lobby of the Clift, the Hilton, the JW Marriott, take your pick. Lou Bock, a partner with Scale Venture Partners, and a former scientist at Genentech and Gilead Sciences, says catching up with old friends is a big part of what makes the thing special.
“There’s a lot to be said about the old fashioned way of doing things,” Bock says. “We can all do e-mail, and see PowerPoints over the web, but face time is important.”
My personal strategy for covering this meeting has changed through the years. I will be meeting with companies big and small, connecting with the newsmakers who are making innovative things happen in life sciences in San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, and Michigan—all five places where Xconomy covers innovation. I will be on the lookout for the original feature stories and scoops that I hope will distinguish our coverage in 2011. Good luck to you and whatever it is you’re shooting for in the year to come. Have a great confidence.