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Biotech Bigwig, Steve Burrill, Brings National Profile to Local Conference

Xconomy Seattle — 

Steve Burrill, the San Francisco-based merchant banker with one of the best Rolodexes in the life sciences industry, is getting serious about Seattle. And his name and connections might be just the thing to help lift the Northwest’s annual biotech investing conference out of obscurity.

Burrill & Co. made it official yesterday that it has agreed to sign on as a sponsor and partner on Life Sciences Innovation Northwest, the regional biotech showcase that the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association organizes every year in March.

This means Burrill, an in-demand public speaker, will deliver one of his trademark keynote talks on the state of the biotech industry. More importantly, his organization will provide money and organizational horsepower to help draw a crowd of national biotech players—something that’s never easy in this soggy corner of the country in March.

“There’s a lot of strength in the Pacific Northwest,” Burrill said yesterday, phoning from Paris. “This is a way for us to be connected into an enormous band of technology that stretches from north of the San Francisco Bay to Vancouver, BC.”

Burrill added that while his organization is “geographically agnostic,” he’s drawn to the Northwest partly because of its computing expertise, as IT becomes more vital to life sciences in the genomics age. While Burrill has organized events in other parts of the Northwest in the past—including Portland, OR, last year—this is the first time he’s thrown his energy into a conference in the Seattle biotech cluster.

Steve Burrill

Steve Burrill

For those who are unfamiliar, Burrill has been analyzing, prognosticating, investing, dealmaking, speaking, and writing about biotech for more than two decades. His organization has more than $950 million under management to invest in drugs, devices, diagnostics, agricultural biotech, and biomaterials. Every year, Burrill & Co. hosts an event for top industry CEOs in Laguna Beach, CA. Just two weeks ago at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco—the biggest public biotech investing event of the year—Burrill hosted a reception that drew more than 1,000 people.

That sort of high-powered networking has been only a dream for the folks at the WBBA, who have been trying for years to raise the profile of the local biotech scene, and have struggled to put the local investing event on the national map.

“This helps validate life sciences here,” says Chris Rivera, head of the WBBA.

Last year, Rivera’s first as WBBA president, the conference drew a little more than 700 attendees to the Seattle waterfront. Even though the economy looked grim, the conference had more energy than in years past, and it drew a top-notch keynoter in Pfizer’s venture investing chief, Barbara Dalton.

This year, Rivera is thinking bigger. He hopes to beat that attendance record by recruiting a delegation of scientists from China, more Big Pharma dealmakers, and national investors, to try to make sure this isn’t a parochial snoozer.

The WBBA is certainly pushing hard to draw as many of the region’s biggest names among public and private companies. Dendreon, Seattle Genetics, ZymoGenetics are all on the docket for panel discussions, and emerging venture-backed players like Alder Biopharmaceuticals, Acucela, Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, Immune Design, and VLST—have all applied to give investor presentations.

Interestingly, Burrill almost ended up as a competitor of WBBA instead of a partner. His organization originally contacted the local association to ask for its help in planning a Burrill-run investing conference in Seattle, with an eye toward May or June, Rivera says.

Turns out that Burrill wasn’t aware of what WBBA had in store on its own for Life Sciences Innovation Northwest in March, and when they realized they had similar ideas, the two organizations decided to join forces on the existing event for at least one year, Rivera says. “It should increase visibility for both organizations,” Rivera says. “We each bring different things to the table.”

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  • Ryan

    Yes, anyone who starts stories with “When I wrote the business plan for Genentech” is definitely a biotech bigwig. Way to go Seattle!

  • Thank you Steve for coming to Switzerland this week for the Biosquare.
    You are not afraid to go overseas!

    Switzerland is still # 1 in Europe and # 2 behind Singapore in the World for Innovation…

    Right on target to expand your business in Europe!