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SAN FRANCISCO — Ian Wilson is proud of the complicated science behind his medical imaging startup. But in opening his pitches to investors this week, he’s played down the wonk and amped up the style.

“You have to be a bit like a snake oil, Wild West person. … You’ve got to put a silly hat on,” said Wilson, chief executive of the Scottish firm Edinburgh Molecular Imaging, which is developing fluorescent molecules that it hopes to market to hospitals and drug companies.


He’s among hundreds of biotech executives who spent all week here wooing prospective partners and investors in town for the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, the industry’s premiere financial meeting.

“It’s all about the catchwords,” said Neel Mehta, chief strategy officer of Phoenix-based EpiFinder, a startup working on software to help diagnose epilepsy. He peppered his pitches with some of his favorite phrases: Artificial intelligence. Software application. Intellectual property. Machine learning.

Other entrepreneurs take a visual approach. Wilson tried to wow investors right away by opening up his laptop to play a video showing what his company’s technology can do.


Then there was J. David Owens, chief executive of Arkansas startup BiologicsMD. He opened his presentations with striking photos of balding heads. (His company is developing a treatment for hair loss.)

Andrea Bartzen, a consultant who helps both startups and big pharma companies craft their pitches to investors, has watched much of the action with dismay. She estimated that 90 percent of executives don’t adjust their pitch to their audience.

Among the biggest fails? Not telling a potential investor how they’ll make money on the deal.

Big pharma executives, Bartzen said, can be some of the worst offenders. They boast about how they’re “generally diversified,” Bartzen said. “Blah, blah, blah.”