Biopharma Industry Meetings Could Use Some Fresh Voices

11/1/11

One or more notices of upcoming biopharma industry conferences arrive in my email every day. I give their agendas a quick glance before deleting them, as they’re seldom in areas I focus on. The vast majority of presenters are plucked from the ranks of top-tier Big Pharma; there’s a seminar from Pfizer, a speaker from Johnson & Johnson, a lecture from Novartis, a presentation from Merck.

On one level, this makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you expect to find representatives from the largest companies in the industry speaking about their work? Many of them certainly deserve to be there. However, I think it’s time for meeting organizers to clear out some of the stale air and introduce some fresher voices with new ideas.

I can’t speak for others, but when I go to meetings, I want to learn something new, gain a wider perspective, and do a little networking. As such, I want to hear the best and the brightest, the insightful stories, the innovative approaches that led to success. A little inspiration thrown in the mix never hurts either. Most of what I’ve learned from Big Pharma’s recent misadventures, however, is what not to do. Do you want to hear about critical issues in biopharma only from companies that have exhibited clear and convincing evidence of repeated failures in key segments of their business? Problems include large numbers of key patent expirations (with few replacement drugs lined up), massive fines for illegal marketing, a steady stream of manufacturing woes, unethical behavior by their CEOs and other leaders, over-promised and under-delivered sales numbers, quality control issues, and a litany of other failures that have caused the public to lose faith in the industry.

So why is it that you see meeting programs filled almost entirely with these presenters? The answer lies in having an understanding of who is putting on these forums. My sense is that the majority of biopharma meetings these days are organized by for-profit companies, with a lesser number of conferences set up by industry trade groups and scientific societies. The primary goal of these for-profit meetings is not to ensure that new and innovative ideas get presented; the principal objective is to fill their cash registers. And how do they facilitate doing that? By loading their agendas with speakers who will fly in for free, don’t ask for or need expense reimbursements, and are likely to bring along an Airbus full of coworkers. Perhaps even more importantly, their companies are also likely to book a large amount of exhibition space and to host various parts of the social program. I suspect that speakers are therefore chosen at many of these meetings not necessarily for the expertise they bring, but for the dollars their companies contribute and the seats they fill. Potential presenters that are not willing and able, either directly or indirectly, to subsidize the cost of the meeting are simply not invited. This practice needs to change.

Big Pharma currently finds itself in less-than-stellar circumstances with pipelines that are filled to only a fraction of capacity. Only part of this predicament can be blamed on changing FDA requirements. The industry has collectively failed to do little more than routine maintenance work on its high-powered drug discovery engine, resulting in sub par performance. If the machine that drives your organization was suffering from a major, operator-induced malfunction, would you risk making the repairs yourself, or would you look for an independent “mechanic” to fix the damage? Those in the industry might want to look outside of their ranks for new strategies, advice, and ideas on resolving the various problems detailed above.

Whatever the approach taken, biopharma companies likeliest to prosper are those that do the best job supporting (or buying) innovative science, no matter how it is funded. Whether their management teams can establish (or maintain) a culture that leads to scientific advances, and then combine this with the intestinal fortitude needed to support lengthy development programs, remains to be seen. Gene therapy, antisense biology, and, more recently, RNA interference technologies have all been hot therapeutic approaches that industry largely cooled on when it became apparent that near-term disease treatments were not immediately forthcoming. Immunotherapy, a currently overheated field basking in the glow of a recent first drug approval, has been repeatedly probed, then abandoned by industry over the past century.

The loss of revenue caused by patent expirations, coupled with a dearth of new drug approvals, has forced the industry to implement changes to their business models. Many companies have cut back sharply on the number of disease areas they will explore. Establishing more extensive collaborations with both academic groups and smaller biotech companies has become widespread among Big Pharma companies, as has funding research startups through their own venture capital arms. An initiative has been put forth to pool and share academic and industry pre-clinical research data in neuroscience. One company has even set up a biotech incubator in its unused lab space. Concomitant with all of these strategies is an almost universal interest in pursuing “targeted acquisitions”.

Change in biopharma is being tested in a number of different ways. Some tactics will work, but many are likely to fail. This is not the time to be afraid, though, because “same old, same old” isn’t getting it done, and incremental change isn’t working. Success depends on generating good ideas and successfully implementing them. Keeping abreast of new approaches may be critical in helping your organization separate the drug discovery “wheat” from the failed clinical trial “chaff”.

Revolutionary ideas in biopharma will not be televised or tweeted. Meeting organizers need to bring in the mavericks, air the fanciful ideas of the non-conformists, and recruit speakers with novel approaches. Take steps to change things if you’re not satisfied with the status quo at biopharma conferences. Tell convention organizers that you won’t attend future events unless they bring in more independent voices that can share new ideas and critique what is and isn’t currently working. If you have specific speaker suggestions, please make sure to share them. This is a simple, though admittedly small step, in working towards solving a much larger problem. As former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower once put it, “the water won’t clear up until you get the hogs out of the creek“.

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • http://www.rxmd.com Sanjay S.

    Great post and thank you for shining light on a frequently glossed over issue.
    I have often reviewed those same conference notices in my email inbox with the same dread that you feel. Highlighting “innovative” thoughts or leaders from big pharma companies never really made much sense to me considering that very little innovation actually occurs at those companies. And I agree–these big names sell tickets and pay the conference bills but they very rarely evoke any kind of EEG activity in the audience.
    It’s high time conference organizers look for disruptive presenters in this industry who will truly stimulate the audience and perhaps even enhance the perspectives of the meeting attendees. That would be a refreshing and largely welcomed change to these meetings. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen if conference organizers continue to reach for the same retread rolodex of big pharma presenters…

  • http://www.flagshipbio.com Steve Potts

    The days of the corporate $3k 3 day price tag corporate-run conference are hopefully over. I completely agree with your comments, it is also extremely difficult for many of the leaders in large pharmas to be approved to deliver new information and content, and they are often forced to discuss work and projects 3-5 years old.

    Would be curious to see your experience in the online virtual conference, science without travelling

    See http://isymposia.com/ for an example

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