Next week, thousands of biotech professionals will flock to San Francisco, bouncing in and out of cramped meeting spaces and joining celebrities from lists A through D for the industry’s annual celebration of itself.
But the show, the BIO International Convention, is almost never the site of multibillion-dollar deals or ground-shifting merger announcements — those happen at the every-winter JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. And unlike ASCO, ASH, and other acronymic scientific meetings, BIO isn’t the staging ground for make-or-break data readouts.
So why do about 15,000 industry types from around the world make the trip every year?
For one, the vibe. JP Morgan is great for rubbing elbows with the monied institutions that drive the industry, but their presence contributes to a buttoned-up atmosphere that can stifle off-the-cuff conversations, biotech entrepreneurs said.
“The BIO meeting has a very different pace and flavor,” said Mary Thistle, chief business officer of Cambridge-based Dimension Therapeutics, who has been attending both shows for about a decade. “You can get access to pretty much anyone, and you have the luxury of having a little bit more time.”
For Praveen Tipirneni, that laid-back experience is the main draw of BIO (which is hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a lobbying group that’s also known, confusingly, as BIO).
“The things that would only be talked about behind closed doors at JP Morgan can be talked about here in a more casual environment,” said Tipirneni, CEO of Morphic Rock Therapeutic. “You don’t have to feel like you’re always on the record.”
At BIO, schedules tend to be looser — which for smaller companies that might struggle for face time with overbooked C-suiters at JP Morgan makes the annual June pilgrimage a better place to get a foot in the door for future collaboration.
Tipirneni skipped the last few BIOs, finding little allure when he was an executive at the roughly 900-employee Cubist Pharmaceuticals. But now that he’s leading a startup, the conference offers him a shot at meeting would-be partners who might not have time for Morphic Rock at a more frenetic conference.
BIO sells itself on that potential, promising upstart biotechs a shot at making the connection that snowballs into a high-dollar deal, and offering up tiny cubes of meeting space to let them mingle with pharma.
But BIO dedicates the majority of its real estate to people selling something else — services, software, or the promise of tax breaks — and each year scores of vendors are splayed across about 500,000 square feet that is rented out for around $40 a foot.
The trade show floor is packed with row after row of smiling delegates from countries around the world, peddling tchotchkes of varying utility if you’ll only grant them your card. These people, many of whom represent state and national economic development organizations, are in the business of harvesting leads. If you, for example, trade your contact info for a stuffed koala from the Australia booth, you can expect to later hear about the many virtues of building a new drug manufacturing plant in Adelaide.
“The BIO meeting has a very different pace and flavor.”
Mary Thistle, Dimension Therapeutics
Conference-goers trade tips on where to find the best schwag, and the most popular freebies — like cappuccino at the Italy booth — can draw droves. But if you go year after year, it all begins to blend together, past attendees said.
Sue Washer, president and CEO of the gene therapy biotech AGTC, said she stopped bothering with the show floor once her kids outgrew their fascination with kitschy pieces of flair.
Aside from its mercantile leanings, BIO also serves as a sort of barometer for the biotech business — from the relative quietude of 2009’s mid-downturn incarnation to a glitzier affair in 2014, where attendees partied on an aircraft carrier and watched the World Cup from an ersatz soccer pitch.
The conference, which is held in a different city each year, reached a surreal peak last year in Philadelphia when Boyz II Men, moments removed from performing their 1994 hit “I’ll Make Love to You,” awkwardly introduced the head of the BIO trade group before a full house at Temple University’s basketball arena. It was June, and the Nasdaq biotech index was trading near its all-time high.
Biotech’s summertime zenith would be short-lived, however, as mounting concerns about the ever-rising price of new treatments tamped down investors’ exuberance with the industry. By the winter, biotech stocks had fallen nearly 40 percent, driven down by the increasingly popular opinion that drugs are too expensive, one held by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump alike.
And the BIO trade group, as the de facto mouthpiece for the companies that develop those drugs, went on the offensive.
First, the organization conducted its first-ever excommunication, ousting the Martin Shkreli-led Turing Pharmaceuticals from its roster to distance itself from that company’s dramatic price increase on an old drug. Then BIO launched a PR initiative, buying the somewhat clunky domain TimeIsPrecious.life to argue that it’s impossible to assign a price tag to the extra months or years of life provided by therapies that work.
“Right now, our industry is facing a test,” BIO trade group CEO Jim Greenwood said in an email. “How we respond could determine the actions that politicians take. It’s time we simplify our case.”
And that immediacy has trickled into the conference programming. This year, BIO’s splashy guest is Will Smith. But he’s not on hand to perform, say, “Summertime” or “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Instead, he’ll be hosting a keynote conversation with Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist he played in the movie “Concussion.”
BIO hasn’t completely lost its appetite for revelry, though. The conference’s anchor celebration is a so-called Summer of Love party, inviting attendees to “travel back to that special time where flower power patterns, vibrant funkadelic colors, and groundbreaking music captured the imagination of the country,” according to the program.
After all, San Francisco is “the epicenter of the hippie movement and counterculture,” BIO notes. And what better place for a drug industry conference?