Three Good Things About BIO 2012, and Four Not-so-Good

6/18/12Follow @xconomy

People from all over the world are gathering in Boston today to talk about biotech dreams. Like most years at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s international convention, at least 15,000 people are expected to come together to pursue those dreams in a variety of ways.

You can count on lots of selling, schmoozing, cheerleading, prognosticating, attention-seeking, and politicking, all in a busy four days.

Every self-respecting industry needs to gather around the campfire every once in a while and do these sorts of things, to drum up business and morale. BIO has provided a decent platform for this sort of activity over the years.

I remember attending my first BIO conferences in 2001 and 2002, back when I was new on the biotech beat, and trying hard to learn as fast as I could to avoid looking stupid in the newspaper. My attendance has been spotty in recent years. But I’m here this week because BIO had the good sense to put the conference in the middle of the world’s No. 1 cluster for biotech innovation, where I knew I could fall out of bed and still connect with a lot of people I need to know to do my job.

There’s no doubt that BIO is going to be a worthwhile trip for me this year. But planning for the conference got me thinking about what’s valuable here and what’s not. So I’ve attempted to break down what I expect will be good, and not as good, about BIO2012.

First, the good:

Education/Inspiration. Biotech has long suffered from a public image problem. Say the word, and most people on the street don’t know what it means. Even though there are some amazing things happening in biology—$1,000 genomes, personalized cancer medicines—many bright young people who could apply their talents here don’t have a good place to get inspired. You can’t go to a K-12 school, or even a university, and learn about the truly amazing advances that enabled Genentech to develop a “smart bomb” antibody drug for breast cancer, or that enabled Vertex Pharmaceuticals to introduce the first drug to affect the underlying genetic abnormality in patients with cystic fibrosis. Especially for students, or young professionals trying to break into the industry, a single afternoon of learning at BIO from people who blazed those trails could light a lot of fires for biotech.

Networking. This is probably the one biotech event each year that’s truly international. While the biotech industry has two dominant epicenters (Boston and San Francisco), it is a global business that relies on networks of contract research firms, physicians, regulators, and patients around the world. Getting such a diverse group of people together in one place for four days is a rare and valuable thing.

Looking back at my own coverage of my first BIO conference 11 years ago (which I don’t recommend, by the way) I had a chance to meet NIH director Francis Collins, the late and legendary entrepreneur George Rathmann, and many others there to share their perspectives. I listened, learned, and sought out their perspectives for years later. People need to learn somewhere, and form their first industry connections somewhere, and this is a good place for it.

Boston as a location. There are a few great clusters of biotech talent in the world—places with the magic combination of academic insights, venture capital, capable entrepreneurs, and big companies that can bring new healthcare products to the market. During my years at Xconomy, I’ve spent time in a handful of them — San Francisco’s Mission Bay district, the South SF and Sand Hill Road areas, San Diego’s Torrey Pines Mesa, and Seattle’s South Lake Union.

But Cambridge, MA, and Kendall Square in particular, has more biotech innovation per square foot than anywhere on Earth. There are great academic institutions, great medical centers, great biotech startups, great mid-sized companies, great big companies, great contract research firms, great service providers, and a few great venture capitalists (although the herd is thinning here). You’ve got pretty much every global Big Pharma company setting up fancy R&D outposts in Boston, which is probably one part blessing and two parts curse, but that’s another story. There is something really special about the way Boston has developed as a biotech hub the past 10 years, and the creative energy is palpable every time I’m there. I know there are business, political, and logistical reasons for BIO to shift the conference around from city to city, but if BIO really wants to capture the energy and vitality of biotech at its annual convention, it would be smart to have it in Boston every year. It’s no accident that BIO set its convention attendance record of 22,000 the last time it was in Boston, in 2007.

Now for the Bad:

Too many people selling, not enough people buying. I know that a trade show, by definition, is supposed to … Next Page »

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  • Tim Gallagher

    How about “Too much bandwidth devoted to economic development?” I’d like to be the most popular person at BIO someday when I stand in the middle of the exhibition hall and scream “I’ve got a 100-person biotech company that I’d like to relocate anywhere in the world. Anyone wanna tell me the advantage of moving to your town/state/country?” 

    Problem is, this sort of economic development deal doesn’t ever happen, and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t start on the floor of the exhibition hall. Instead, the economic development folks overwhelm the science and business components of BIO, and dilutes the effect of putting 10,000 very cool life science people in the same location. With all of the economic development marketing, half of my conversations revolve seemingly around how good the chocolate tasting was at the France pavilion, or the availability of Dixie beer at the Louisiana booth. (Maybe that’s just me…..)

    The good side to the econ development folks is that they pay a big share of the cost of the BIO convention. Without them, BIO would probably have 5,000 less attendees, and way fewer parties.

  • http://twitter.com/christinewar1 Christine Warrington

    Solid comments. Reviewing in preparation for next years scheduling. Maybe we should move it to RTP?!