Zillions of Biotech Conferences Want You. Which Should You Attend?

5/20/13Follow @xconomy

Biotech industry conferences are happening, somewhere on this green Earth, every day. If you’ve been around a while, and you’ve attended a few, chances are you get invitations, or marketing pitches, that ask you to attend a different meeting every day.

If you’re new to the business, you may not be on all the lists. But if you want to advance, you want to network with the big fish who attend these meetings. You want to find out where the action is, and where it’s going.

So then the question becomes: Which conferences should you attend?

Before I dive into my own calculus on meetings, let me just say there’s a good reason for all this activity. Even though the Internet has created a historic advance for connecting people and ideas, it’s not enough. Human beings still have to meet each other face-to-face to form the relationships we need to understand each other, and do business. So we agree to carve time out of our busy schedules, spend some dough, and sometimes get on airplanes for a few industry conferences every year.

Each person has to have their own specific criteria for what makes an event worthwhile. But I think Stewart Lyman, a frequent  contributor to Xconomy, spoke for a lot of people when he said a couple years ago “when I go to meetings, I want to learn something new, gain a wider perspective, and do a little networking.”

Simple, right?

Now, if you’re a biotech CEO or a chief financial officer, you are probably on the road constantly in search of money at one banking conference after another. I don’t really know the differences between the various conferences put on by UBS, Cowen, or Goldman Sachs, so I won’t try to size them up.

But I do make it my business to go to a lot of conferences each year to stay current on who’s who and what’s what in biotech. I have my own personal set of questions I ask to help me sort through them. Will I learn something new there that will help me gain insight? How many people will be there? Are there going to be a lot of newsmakers there that I already know and want to stay in touch with? Are there newsmakers there that I haven’t met, and want to meet? Will I have to travel far? How much time and money is this going to take? Will it fit into my schedule? How many competing media outlets will be there? If there are too many, that’s bad, because I don’t want to be just another guy writing the same story that 10 other outlets have. One of my credos is that man can’t live on commodity news in the Internet age.

So how does this play out in reality? I figured it would be fun to do a quick rundown of a few major conferences on the calendar, with a short explainer on why I chose to attend it, or skip it.

Here goes:

JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. This convention is held in San Francisco’s Union Square every January. This is the granddaddy of all biotech industry conferences, having been around for more than 30 years. All the top executives in biotech and Big Pharma are there, along with the major venture capitalists, fund managers, Wall Street analysts, and media. You spend marathon days inhaling facts, claims, aspirations, wishful thoughts, and half-baked predictions. Then you spend all night socializing on the cocktail party circuit (inside tip: drink lots of water, not wine, unless you want to keel over from dehydration). I go every year, and would never consider skipping it.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Many readers will be shocked to hear this, but I haven’t personally attended the ASCO meeting since I was for working for Bloomberg News in 2007. I cover cancer news aggressively, and this is the biggest single event for cancer news of the year, held every June. But it’s also a hype-a-palooza dominated by other media who have been around longer, and have more readers, than Xconomy. I figure I can spend four days of time and $2,000 of hard-earned money roaming Chicago’s McCormick Place to compete in a massive echo chamber, or I can selectively cover a few ASCO stories from my office, do them as best I can, and use the rest of the time to zig when other media zags, giving my readers something they won’t find anywhere else.

Life Science Innovation Northwest. This conference is the biggest biotech industry conference in the Northwest, held in July in Seattle. It’s local, so this one is easy to attend. I always make sure to say hello to my existing contacts, meet some new people, and squirrel away a few story ideas that I can publish later. Readers who think Seattle is Timbuktu might want to take a closer look. The region is going through a biotech slump, for sure, but there’s more here than many realize.

OME Precision Medicine Summit. This event was assembled at UC San Francisco earlier this month, and led by chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann. I had a chance to attend part of this, but skipped it, because of travel and schedule conflicts. I’m kicking myself for missing it, because this looks like it was a great meeting, full of interesting people pushing hard to advance meaningful reforms to the way drugs get developed, and treatments get tailored for patients.

Xconomy events. Duh, these are a must-attend. Need I say more?

Biotechnology Industry Organization convention. BIO’s annual convention is always a mixed bag for me. I skipped it this year for a few reasons. One, it was … Next Page »

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  • Julio Gagne

    AACR for me.

  • Heather

    The AAPS Annual Meeting (November) and AAPS National Biotechnology Conference (May) are both must-attends for our company each year.

  • http://www.lacertabio.com Carlos N Velez/Lacerta Bio

    It depends on whether you need a purely scientific/academic conference or more of a BD/Networking conference. For us, we were at JPMorgan/Biotech Showcase in January and BIO in April. We’ll go to EBD BIO-Europe in November, which tends to be larger than the Spring version of BIO-Europe. These three are more networking-focused, which makes sense for us. We used to go to AAPS annually, but our client mix right now just doesn’t justify the need.

    I went to Biopharm America in Boston a few years ago. It was pretty good. I too was surprised how many folks came over from Europe.

    I disagree with your comment that there aren’t enough innovators. They’re there, but their in the Business Forum trying to out-license their assets.

    I would also add BioTrinity in the UK to the list. It’s held every May in a rural location West of London. This year had ~800 attendees, and next year’s event will be in London. For the size of the conference, it’s a good value because it’s run by a not-for-profit. I’ve attended in the past, and I’ve met many small UK & EU companies who can’t or won’t travel to the US for BIO.

    I wish either BIO or EBD would have an annual networking conference in India. Aside from CPhI India, there doesn’t appear to be much of a conference scene there compared with China or even Brazil. It’s a tough trip, but it might be worth it if the attendance is large (say, 750 or more) and if there is a direct flight from NY/Boston/London.

    We’ll likely go to Drug Delivery Partnerships in January, 2014. But that is also driven by our current client mix.

    Safe travels!

    • http://twitter.com/BiotechStockRsr BiotechStockResearch

      I have to give a shout out to the American Urological Association meeting. I have a particular interest in prostate cancer due to our coverage universe (Dendreon, Medivation, Exelixis, others) and this meeting never fails to disappoint. If we did not attend in 2011, we wouldn’t have been the only analyst team to ring a warning bell about Dendreon’s Provenge revenue problems BEFORE they imploded in August 2011. And if the current management team can save the company, we’ll likely learn about it first at AUA.

      Beyond prostate drugs, I’ve come to lean on AUA for insight into how the treatment of cancer works in this country. Understanding how patients are handed off from PCP to specialist to hospice has been enlightening. Severe problems with adherence to guidelines. Docs who stubbornly refuse to update treatment practices despite Level 1 evidence to the contrary. Patients who’d rather believe some quack on the internet than the doc examining their chart. The role of profit in guiding treatment decisions. And, in the case of PSA, how a few loud voices are able to skew screening guidance and harm patients just to satisfy their ego or own pecular, narrow world view.

      These are all important themes in our research that AUA has been invaluable in helping me understand.

      • http://www.xconomy.com/ Luke Timmerman

        Great points about AUA, David. I’d be willing to bet that you could notice some similar patterns of healthcare dysfunction by attending other specialized conferences. I’m particularly curious about what happens to a medical specialty once it becomes super-commercialized. Can you imagine attending the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology or the American Society of Retinal Specialists now vs. 10 years ago? These were backwater conferences then that only a few physicians attended. Now they are benefitting from a few effective new drugs for macular degeneration. The physicians are suddenly awash in pharma industry cash and investor interest/money. I wonder how that has changed the way these physicians practice medicine, and how they think about themselves and their discipline.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/ Luke Timmerman

    Carlos, thanks for the note. I’ve heard good things about BioTrinity, and the various Keystone conferences for updates on basic science.

  • Blair Van Brunt

    Partnering For Cures is amazing. Many innovators. lots of networking. not as many patient groups as there could be. We formed our own meeting (the conference did not provide a space or designate a time for the patient groups) and we had possibly 10 reps from diff groups. 2 years ago I introduced myself to a team who presented a successful drug re-purposing program for The Lymphoma & Leukemia Society at the meeting and who is now “my team” for a re-purposing drug project that our org is sponsoring. I am in contact with Faster Cures (parent of P4C) to help them establish more time and room for the patient groups.
    Blair Van Brunt
    Chair, Drug Discovery Committee
    Shwachman Diamond Syndrome Foundation

  • James Mosedale

    Dear Luke,

    Thanks for another enjoyable article.

    I recently found out about a website that might be relevant to readers of this article; at the AACR I spotted a business card with the web address http://www.conferenceace.com on it and the website allows people to review biotech conferences and displays the reviews. It’s a little basic but I like the idea and think if they get a good number of reviews coming in it’ll be a very useful tool.

    Kind regards,

    James