Langer, Led Zeppelin, and Hookups: Three Days Behind the BIO Scenes

6/27/14Follow @alexlash

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at BIO, too. A couple of young(er) scientists based in the Bay Area were taken aback at how corporate the conference was. Ryan Bethencourt, XPrize director and co-founder/CEO of Berkeley BioLabs, and self-described biohacker and vegan, wrote about the staleness of the conference in this piece.

It’s true. Corporate-driven events like BIO (which is much more about big biopharma than start-ups) are buttoned-down affairs. Plus, a lot of the sanctioned panel discussions are driven by sponsorship and put together by PR firms—another reason to be careful about reporting those talks as news. Add in the cookie-cutter receptions, ubiquitous chirpy video presentations, and endless synthetic carpeting down mile-long convention center hallways, and it can feel a million miles away from bio-hacking.

Now, that doesn’t mean the BIO crowd doesn’t cross certain lines once the sun goes down. Ethan Perlstein, a scientist in his mid-30s who favors Birkenstocks, was put off by the academia-industrial axis and worked his way this year into the Janssen/QB3 incubator in San Francisco with his rare-disease drug discovery plan. It was also his first BIO, and he was taken aback at some of the louche after-hours behavior:

 

 

Note the first tweet’s reference to the Stingaree rooftop bar. I was there, too (but left before the hook-up scene got in gear), and I noted a sign in the bathroom that hinted the club was accustomed to a much wilder crowd:

 

—My onsite coverage at BIO included one person who was there the whole time—BIO chairwoman Rachel King, whom I quizzed on a number of policy issues facing the industry—and one person who never showed up. San Francisco biotech investor Steve Burrill cancelled his annual state-of-the-industry talk due to the legal cloud of a lawsuit filed the previous week by a former employee.

—Finally, the conference was the scene of the passing of a torch, of sorts. Alan Trounson, the outgoing president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, was on hand for Wednesday’s stem-cell and regenerative-medicine track, his last appearance before heading back to his native Australia. The new prez, Randall Mills—former CEO of adult stem-cell therapy developer Osiris Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OSIR) of Columbia, MD—was also on hand to moderate one panel and have an evening glass of wine after the track wound up. He’s yet to move his family from Maryland and is still living out of a hotel room in San Francisco, where CIRM is headquartered.

While other top folks besides Trounson have left CIRM recently, chairman Jonathan Thomas will stay and continue to pound the pavement in CIRM’s quest for what it calls “sustainability”—keeping its funding mission alive with other cash sources as the $3 billion in state taxpayer money runs out. Mills repeated what Thomas and others have said: Thomas is the fundraiser. And Mills, with his clinical and regulatory experience, is on board to help push the clinical programs that CIRM has helped fund—now numbering 16, according to the agency—toward approval, or at least toward proof-of-concept data that will attract industry partners.

Mills said he’s also looking for good sushi restaurants in San Francisco. After a few days in San Diego, he’s probably done with fish tacos for a while.

Photo of the San Diego Convention Center courtesy of Gage Skidmore via a Creative Commons license.

Alex Lash is Xconomy's National Biotech Editor. He is based in San Francisco. Follow @alexlash

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