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Three Good Things About BIO 2012, and Four Not-so-Good

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provide a forum for vendors to hawk their wares. But there’s an appropriate ratio of company executives (buyers) and vendors to make for a good conference, and BIO has a few too many vendors. And once that happens, the problem becomes like a vicious cycle. The biotech executives who do show up get bombarded with pitches from 15 different contract toxicology firms, when they may only need one or two. While getting bombarded, they’ll struggle to get the one meeting they really want with a dealmaker at Genentech or Merck (who may or may not be the top decision maker). I recognize that vendors play a critical role in financially supporting an industry extravaganza, and they need to make money just like everybody else. But please, figure out the right balance.

Too much noise. There are 15,000 expected attendees, and it seems like just about everybody has a story to tell, or at least a story they want the media to tell for them. There are supposed to be about 300 reporters at this conference, but it feels like the group is much smaller than that. What ends up happening is that hundreds of groups issue press releases that don’t contain much news, and the message gets lost in the white noise of the conference. Rather than aggressively trying to push 1,000 press releases on a couple dozen reporters in four days’ time, why not spread things out a little? How about attempting to get to know a few journalists, and dole out a little background info, in hopes that they will find your story interesting when you have real news to share, whether that’s in July, October, December, or whenever.

Too much clueless cheerleading. I think biotech has suffered from too much wishful thinking in years’ past, too much rah-rah, and not enough willingness to stare down real problems. That’s starting to change, as I get the sense that more industry leaders are willing to talk about problems, in hopes that it will lead to people thinking about constructive solutions. The lack of venture capital fundraising, and investment in startups, is an ongoing industry crisis that can’t be ignored. When I spoke to industry maven Steve Burrill the other day, he told a sobering story. Even after Burrill struck gold with Pharmasset (NASDAQ: VRUS), he had to take a lot of rejections before corralling his next fund. “The model of the biotech venture industry is not viewed as attractive by the guys who put money into us,” Burrill said, referring to big pension funds and endowments. “I’ve had fund managers look me in the face and say ‘we did biotech before, and it didn’t do well. We’re done.’”

Let’s not forget that biotech needs to re-think business-as-usual and come up with better models to help turn that perception around.

Too much self-interested politicking. With all kinds of public officials in attendance looking to associate themselves with biotech companies that product high-wage, high-quality jobs, biotech has some pretty darn good political cards to play. Biotech can ask for favors, everything from speedy permits, and tougher barriers for those developing cheap, competing “biosimilar” drugs. More often than not, the industry gets what it wants.

Despite that, there will be industry insiders carping about tough new disclosure rules about various gifts and payments drug companies make to influential physicians. They will spend time at this week’s conference bending the ears of elected officials at the local, state, and federal level, and maybe making a few campaign contributions.

When the average citizen reads about this kind of thing, it turns them off. It makes them less inclined to support changes like an increase in the NIH budget, which would help the industry. Biotech would be wise to be selective in what it asks for, and maybe even consider making some sacrifices. I know it costs a lot to develop new drugs, but it’s the industry’s job to solve that problem. Maybe this is Pollyanna thinking, but how about an industry-wide voluntary agreement to cap drug price increases to 2 percent a year—right around the normal rate of inflation. Or maybe offer refunds to patients who weren’t helped by expensive cancer medicines?

In a world that’s struggling to get a grip on unsustainable healthcare costs, biotech would be wise to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That kind of spirit could go a long way toward rekindling the sense of awe and excitement for biotech that so many people want to stir this week at BIO in Boston.

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  • Tim Gallagher

    How about “Too much bandwidth devoted to economic development?” I’d like to be the most popular person at BIO someday when I stand in the middle of the exhibition hall and scream “I’ve got a 100-person biotech company that I’d like to relocate anywhere in the world. Anyone wanna tell me the advantage of moving to your town/state/country?” 

    Problem is, this sort of economic development deal doesn’t ever happen, and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t start on the floor of the exhibition hall. Instead, the economic development folks overwhelm the science and business components of BIO, and dilutes the effect of putting 10,000 very cool life science people in the same location. With all of the economic development marketing, half of my conversations revolve seemingly around how good the chocolate tasting was at the France pavilion, or the availability of Dixie beer at the Louisiana booth. (Maybe that’s just me…..)

    The good side to the econ development folks is that they pay a big share of the cost of the BIO convention. Without them, BIO would probably have 5,000 less attendees, and way fewer parties.

  • Solid comments. Reviewing in preparation for next years scheduling. Maybe we should move it to RTP?!