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

6/27/14Follow @alexlash

Don’t let the blind men groping the elephant fool you. No one can get their arms around the massive, 15,000-attendee BIO conference, the industry’s annual flagship convention, and tell you what the real zeitgeist is.

It’s all selection bias: If, say, you’ve been keenly following cancer immunotherapy the past couple years, you probably went to a panel discussion or two on the topic, then pursued more of those discussions in the hallways, on Twitter, and at happy hour.

Immunotherapy, outsourcing, IPOs, alternative financing: pick nearly any theme, and you could find a slice of those 15,000 people chewing on it at BIO like a $14 plate of fish tacos.

Like all the other blind men and women, I have my selection biases, too. For the purposes of this notebook, then, I won’t try to make grand pronouncements or predictions. I’ll simply share some of the stories and observations I had in my three days on the ground in San Diego this year.

—Late Monday, about 50 people gathered on the 34th floor of a downtown tower to help Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Bob Langer receive more plaudits for his career achievements. This time, it was the Chemical Heritage Foundation, an historical society in Philadelphia, presenting its annual Biotechnology Heritage Award. It was a low-key affair for a scientist with hardware such as the U.S. National Medal of Science, the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Draper Prize, and the MIT-Lemelson Prize already on his fireplace mantel.

The speechifying was kept to a minimum, but two of the toasts stood out. One was a story told by Langer’s former colleague Michael Marletta, now at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. He and Langer were in their earlier years at MIT; one evening at a faculty dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Central Square, a senior MIT scientist sat quizzing them while smoking a cigar. (Marletta refused to name names.) When the older scientist heard Langer’s ambitions for polymeric drug delivery—combining the biomedical and engineering research that has become his hallmark—he blew a cloud of smoke in Langer’s face and said, “You better start looking for another job.”

“I thought I was in a Fellini movie,” said Marletta.

That was good for a laugh, especially from Langer. But the best testimonial came from a former Langer graduate student, Cato Laurencin, now a researcher and surgeon at the University of Connecticut who runs the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science.

Laurencin and his daughter flew cross-country that day for the dinner and headed back to the airport as the gathering broke up. “I wanted her to see how important it was for me to be here,” Laurencin told Xconomy. That itself was powerful testimony to Langer’s influence, but Laurencin added remarks that highlighted personal attributes that aren’t often, well, highlighted when the famous and powerful are recognized: humility, patience, and loyalty. Laurencin summed up his feelings with this straightforward phrase: “Bob has tendencies toward doing good things in everything he does.”

I don’t know Langer well enough to say if that’s always true, and of course those invited to an intimate award dinner are a self-selecting crowd. But I’ve seen and heard enough back-scratching speeches over plates of rubber chicken to notice moments of real appreciation. This was one of them.

—I had a long talk with Genentech’s top dealmaker Jim Sabry, whose focus is almost exclusively on early-stage programs and products—“90 percent of our deals are for things that haven’t seen man yet.” In other words, they haven’t reached clinical trials. I was curious how that focus is affected by the growing amount of experimentation among biotech VCs with asset-centric models, in which the goal is to advance a single program, as frugally as possible, only far enough for a buyer to grab it. Often, as with Versant Ventures (and its Inception group) and Atlas Venture (see this story), the VCs are eager to grant buyers early options to acquire—a practice that was anathema to VCs a decade ago. Sabry said his main concern in this age of virtual biotech companies is corner-cutting.

“Asset-centric approaches can work for us, but my one caveat for the VCs is they cut corners scientifically because they’re so capitally efficient,” Sabry said. “You can’t be too cheap about how much money you spend in a drug discovery company. What that really says to us is move more leftward and take more discovery risk. We’re happy to do that but at the right economics. So at some point the discussion at Genentech shifts from ‘Should we do this deal?’ to ‘Why don’t we just work on those targets ourselves?’—because the targets themselves are not protectable.”

Just to prove he’s zeroed in on early stage work, Sabry later professed his love of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums, the underappreciated Led Zeppelin III in particular. In a recent company memo, Sabry even dared to challenge the pantheon: “Pure rock. The beginning. Das Rheingold. Stand aside Liverpool, stand aside Dylan. Bow down to the real genius of rock.”

Uh-oh. Warning VCs not to cut corners is one thing, but a shot across the bow of the Beatles and Bob Dylan? In the same memo, he exhorted his colleagues to think about sources of inspiration (or perhaps, just to crank it up to 11): “Where is the real genius of your art, of your study? Can you differentiate the genius that is popular from the deep genius of the E chord?”

—Two guys with gray hair (a few for Sabry; a lot for me) fist-pumping to “The Immigrant Song” is one way to make the younger generation roll their eyes. There was evidence of a bit more culture clash 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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