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 provide a forum for vendors to hawk their wares. But there’s an appropriate ratio of company executives (buyers) and vendors to make for a good conference, and BIO has a few too many vendors. And once that happens, the problem becomes like a vicious cycle. The biotech executives who do show up get bombarded with pitches from 15 different contract toxicology firms, when they may only need one or two. While getting bombarded, they’ll struggle to get the one meeting they really want with a dealmaker at Genentech or Merck (who may or may not be the top decision maker). I recognize that vendors play a critical role in financially supporting an industry extravaganza, and they need to make money just like everybody else. But please, figure out the right balance.
Too much noise. There are 15,000 expected attendees, and it seems like just about everybody has a story to tell, or at least a story they want the media to tell for them. There are supposed to be about 300 reporters at this conference, but it feels like the group is much smaller than that. What ends up happening is that hundreds of groups issue press releases that don’t contain much news, and the message gets lost in the white noise of the conference. Rather than aggressively trying to push 1,000 press releases on a couple dozen reporters in four days’ time, why not spread things out a little? How about attempting to get to know a few journalists, and dole out a little background info, in hopes that they will find your story interesting when you have real news to share, whether that’s in July, October, December, or whenever.
Too much clueless cheerleading. I think biotech has suffered from too much wishful thinking in years’ past, too much rah-rah, and not enough willingness to stare down real problems. That’s starting to change, as I get the sense that more industry leaders are willing to talk about problems, in hopes that it will lead to people thinking about constructive solutions. The lack of venture capital fundraising, and investment in startups, is an ongoing industry crisis that can’t be ignored. When I spoke to industry maven Steve Burrill the other day, he told a sobering story. Even after Burrill struck gold with Pharmasset (NASDAQ: VRUS), he had to take a lot of rejections before corralling his next fund. “The model of the biotech venture industry is not viewed as attractive by the guys who put money into us,” Burrill said, referring to big pension funds and endowments. “I’ve had fund managers look me in the face and say ‘we did biotech before, and it didn’t do well. We’re done.’”
Let’s not forget that biotech needs to re-think business-as-usual and come up with better models to help turn that perception around.
Too much self-interested politicking. With all kinds of public officials in attendance looking to associate themselves with biotech companies that product high-wage, high-quality jobs, biotech has some pretty darn good political cards to play. Biotech can ask for favors, everything from speedy permits, and tougher barriers for those developing cheap, competing “biosimilar” drugs. More often than not, the industry gets what it wants.
Despite that, there will be industry insiders carping about tough new disclosure rules about various gifts and payments drug companies make to influential physicians. They will spend time at this week’s conference bending the ears of elected officials at the local, state, and federal level, and maybe making a few campaign contributions.
When the average citizen reads about this kind of thing, it turns them off. It makes them less inclined to support changes like an increase in the NIH budget, which would help the industry. Biotech would be wise to be selective in what it asks for, and maybe even consider making some sacrifices. I know it costs a lot to develop new drugs, but it’s the industry’s job to solve that problem. Maybe this is Pollyanna thinking, but how about an industry-wide voluntary agreement to cap drug price increases to 2 percent a year—right around the normal rate of inflation. Or maybe offer refunds to patients who weren’t helped by expensive cancer medicines?
In a world that’s struggling to get a grip on unsustainable healthcare costs, biotech would be wise to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That kind of spirit could go a long way toward rekindling the sense of awe and excitement for biotech that so many people want to stir this week at BIO in Boston.