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SAN FRANCISCO — There’s an arms race for attention here at the biotech industry’s largest global conference. And the weapon of choice is the tchotchke.

Branded beer koozies, foam footballs, enough USB drives to house the Human Genome Project, even a chance to get a professional headshot taken — all are on offer for those who stop by the hundreds of booths sponsored by biopharma companies and economic development agencies from around the world.


And that’s just during the day: Come cocktail hour at the BIO International Convention, Malbec flowed at the Argentina pavilion the other evening, as a pair of tango dancers drew a crowd that spilled over into the Massachusetts exhibition and bumped into folks in line for chowder and Sam Adams. The flamenco guitarist at the Spanish pavilion brightened up a spread of ham; an accordion player and lederhosen-clad singer entertained beer drinkers at the Czech Republic outpost.

Some biotech execs cringe at the lavish spending at a time when the industry is under fire for high drug prices.

“There are so many things we as a group of companies need to educate the public about all we bring to society,” said Dr. Laurent Fischer, CEO of biotech Tobira Therapeutics, which is based in South San Francisco, Calif., and works on liver disease. “Garbage and disposables is not one of them.”


But critics seemed to be in the minority.

“People just love these,” said Brian Baird, passing his hands over an array of USB reading lights emblazoned with the logo of his company, Fortune 500 printing outfit RR Donnelley. To get one, BIO attendees must consent to a scan of their conference badges, trading their contact information for a knickknack — and giving the company a sales lead.

The tchotchke economy has evolved over the years, from the banality of pens and pads to the phone chargers and light-up superballs of today. The idea is to squeeze your brand into the minds of would-be clients by offering something they’ll keep around the office. Or, better yet, the living room.

“That’s what’s most popular: Things that are useful and things you can take home to your kids,” said Angus McQuilken, marketing vice president for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

Major drug makers, who have a huge presence at BIO, have to tread a bit more lightly, thanks to the federal Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which created a database that tracks all gifts of value from pharma companies to doctors. There’s no way to be sure who is and isn’t a physician, so most drug companies avoid giving out souvenirs altogether.

But they do offer food. Merck trotted out a frozen yogurt bar that quickly attracted a line, while Johnson & Johnson served espresso — “a service tchotchke,” in the words of Seema Kumar, J&J communications vice president. Pfizer, in a clever display of vertical integration, offered up its own consumer products: Advil and Chapstick.

Amgen offered snacks, too — but posted an apologetic sign explaining that, due to particularly restrictive state laws, doctors from Minnesota were not welcome to cookies and coffee.

Other exhibitors skipped food in favor of high-tech diversions. German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim wheeled out a tabletop video game that seemed to split the difference between Pong and Tron. And there was virtual reality at Samsung’s combed-steel booth; visitors could don a headset and take a CGI tour of a laboratory, guided by smiling scientist with a passing resemblance to Mega Man.

Keeping up with all that glitz can be difficult for organizations that don’t have the marketing resources of the drug industry. Like, for instance, the US Army.

“The federal government, we don’t have the funding to do the expensive gadgetry and whatnot,” said Judy Holian, representing the Army’s biomedical research division. Instead, she had a table of MRE energy bars and Army-issue caffeinated chewing gum, displayed under a faux-leafy canopy, which looked like a MASH unit had been teleported into a conference hall.

As the hours waned, exhibitors became less rigorous about collecting contact info in return for the trinkets. RR Donnelley began passing its wares to any and all, hoping to liquidate its stash before the conference ends.

Anything undistributed has to be boxed up and shipped back, Baird said, and “that’s a pain in the ass.”