Zillions of Biotech Conferences Want You. Which Should You Attend?
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.”
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.
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 in April, and I was overloaded with events I was running for Xconomy in two cities that month. Two, the meeting was held in Chicago, where we don’t have a bureau. Three, I don’t like going to conferences where I get pitched lots of story ideas that make no sense for my publication, so I have to beat away the PR people with a stick. (Reporters: I know you feel my pain.) BIO, to me, is a great conference for people getting started in the industry, because there are so many educational sessions. There are certainly lots of Big Pharma business development people there, so I’m sure it’s worthwhile for many biotech dealmakers. But there are not enough innovators, and too many vendors, for my taste.
Sage Commons Congress. I attended this quirky conference in April in San Francisco for a few reasons. It’s loaded with the most diverse cast of intellectual, creative people you’ll find anywhere in the biotech and pharma business. I’ve spent the last few years covering former Merck executive Stephen Friend and this daring quest to spark an open source movement in biology. I’m curious to see where this nonprofit will ultimately go, and I knew I’d be one of the few media people there to cover it. This year was the final Sage Commons Congress, as the group needs to take its game to the next level by engaging researchers and patients online.
Calbio 2013. This conference is coming up next month in San Diego, and is co-hosted by BayBio, the San Francisco area biotech trade group, and Biocom, which represents companies in the San Diego area. I expect quite a few newsmakers to be there, and it’s close to home for me on the West Coast. Unfortunately, I can’t make it this year because I’ll be on vacation. Maybe next year.
BioPharm America. This conference is held in September in Boston. I’ve never attended this one, but it attracts a lot of the biotech executives in Boston that I want to stay in touch with, and also ropes in a bunch of pharma people from Europe that I want to get to know better. Plus, I need to travel to Boston at least twice a year to stay up on the biotech companies there, and September seems like a good time after everyone’s back from summer vacations.
Partnering for Cures. I’ve never been to this event organized by the nonprofit FasterCures, but it strikes me as the biggest gathering of patient advocacy groups, biotech companies, pharma companies, and regulators. Patient advocacy groups are rising in influence in drug development, as they are gaining money and development savvy. I feel the need to get to know this reader group better, so I’ll plan to be there in New York in November.
Advances in Genome Biology and Technology. This is the top technical meeting for whiz-bang genomics tools. It’s held every February at a remote place called Marco Island along the Florida Gulf Coast, where all the scientists kick back for a few days. I’ve missed out on a few big scoops the past couple years by missing this meeting, but I don’t think I can justify attending. To me, AGBT is why we have Twitter. It makes it so journalists like me can do the laundry at home on Saturday morning, while occasionally glancing at the phone to see if any news is breaking in real-time, 3,000 miles away. If so, I can always fire up the laptop and write something.
Personalized Medicine Conference. This conference is held in November at Harvard Medical School. I attended this one in 2011, and found it to be a good networking opportunity with scientists and businesspeople doing a lot of innovative things. There was also plenty of preaching to the choir, and not much debate about a subject screaming out for debate.
Personalized Medicine World Conference. Here’s yet another personalized medicine conference, except with shorter, focused talks featuring lots of entrepreneurs from in and around Silicon Valley. I went for the first time this year in January, partly because I’m interested, partly because it wasn’t scheduled too close to the JP Morgan marathon, and partly because the organizers asked me to be part of it. This event is good for networking, but the short talks make it hard to gain much understanding about what people are really doing.
American Society of Hematology. This event, held every December, is my favorite underdog medical meeting, even though I haven’t attended in a few years. Lots of real news breaks every year in the world of leukemia/lymphoma treatments, and there traditionally haven’t been many reporters there to chronicle it. Nothing like the scrum you see at ASCO. One other good cancer meeting that allows time for learning, and less frenzied scrambling and vendor hucksterism, is the American Association for Cancer Research.
BIO Investor Forum. This has been a decent little event for me in years’ past, because it’s small, and provides a quiet opportunity to network with a bunch of biotech CEOs at private and public companies. There aren’t many competing media, it’s at a grand old hotel in San Francisco, and the weather is usually great in mid-October.
Are there any other meetings out there that you consider to be must-attends? I’ve left out a lot of specialized scientific and medical meetings for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, antibiotics, infectious diseases, obesity, multiple sclerosis, ophthalmology, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, various rare diseases, and more, largely because I figure that they tend to generate one-off stories that are best covered from the office. But I’d love to hear from biotech readers which meetings make sense for you to attend and why. Be sure to leave a comment below, or send me a note at ltimmerman [at] xconomy.com.