ALM SPRINGS, Calif. — You can’t beat the glitz at TEDMED.
Hoisting purple cocktails at a private resort here in Palm Springs, 750 elite guests hobnobbed last week at the annual extravaganza — two and a half days of slickly produced talks about medicine and science, punctuated by parties and concerts.
“We don’t think of TEDMED as simply an event,” said Shirley Bergin, TEDMED’s chief operating officer.
It is, she said, a celebration of health and medicine.
This year’s conference, however, was heavy on the celebration and light on the science. That focus on entertainment has sparked debate among serious scientists about the merits of the event — although, in the end, most of them say it would be foolish to pass up a chance to attend.
Until recently a for-profit business, TEDMED does not try to hide its elitist sheen. You have to apply for the privilege of purchasing a $4,950 non-refundable ticket to the event. And that only covers the talks and the parties, not accommodations. A typical audience includes leaders from the worlds of industry, philanthropy, finance, health care, and academia.
Such an atmosphere puts TEDMED — and its speakers — at risk of “losing touch” with the scientific community, said first-time speaker Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Tight research budgets, for instance, “make it difficult to simply participate as a scientist,” he added. He noticed that government employees were conspicuously absent.
Still, he’s glad he went.
Indeed, many doctors and scientists who come to present their work here strongly defend TEDMED as an uncommon chance to rub elbows with potential funders who want to make a difference in health care — and an unrivaled forum to share science with the public. Speakers are not paid for their time, though many subsequently tout their talk on their websites or share it with colleagues and investors.
A typical TEDMED talk, co-released on TED.com, receives an average of 500,000 to 1 million views. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer’s talk last year on breaking habits has chalked up 5.6 million views, and counting.
“TEDMED reaches audiences around the world that none of us as individuals or organizations would necessarily reach,” said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, a tropical medicine expert and director of the Wellcome Trust, who spoke this year.
“We have a responsibility to get off our benches and make people understand why we do what we do,” said Duke neuroscientist Kafui Dzirasa, who gave a talk on mental illness and treatment via electrical stimulation.
And sometimes the connections can be lucrative: After her 2011 TEDMED talk on cracking the neural code of the retina, Cornell neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg said she was approached by multiple venture capitalists. “All sorts of people said, ‘I know how to help you start a company. I know how to help you raise the money,’” she said.
In the five years since, Nirenberg has founded two companies, one of which aims to start a clinical trial within the year for a prosthesis to restore vision.
Pomp and profit
Investors led by entrepreneur Jay Walker, a founder of Priceline.com, purchased TEDMED in 2011 from the original founder of TED Talks.
Walker has been running it for profit — but last week announced that it has been to converted to a nonprofit, now wholly owned by the newly formed TEDMED Foundation.
That’s not to say the pomp and circumstance will be abandoned: “If we can help health and medicine be celebrated like we celebrate sports and entertainment, that would be great for all of us,” Bergin said.
TEDMED defends its high ticket prices as necessary to support the speakers and pay for producing and distributing the talks. It also allows for a free live stream to teaching hospitals, medical schools, and other academic centers; this year, organizations in 120 countries tuned in. “We very much want those on the front lines on health and medicine to have access to this content,” Bergin said.
This year’s program was built around the theme “What if?” — which Walker described during one of his four appearances onstage as the “two words of the scientific imagination.”
Perhaps as a consequence of that theme, the conference was full of questions but few answers.
Enthusiastic crowds gathered for several speakers who only tangentially touched on health, including a Darfur refugee poet, an eco-friendly mortician, and a fitness buff who traveled the world using only modes of transportation she could power with her own muscles.
Several heavy hitters from the science community did take the stage: Chiu introduced the audience to next-generation genetic sequencing to identify infectious disease agents; longevity researcher Dr. Nir Barzilai outlined a clinical trial to treat aging with the drug metformin; and Genetic Alliance CEO Sharon Terry described her foray into citizen science and subsequent discovery of the gene causing her children’s genetic disorder, pseudoxanthoma elasticum.
Dr. Sujey Morgan of Tufts University School of Dental Medicine gave a 12-minute talk on creating facial prostheses for patients who have experienced trauma, birth defects, or cancer. “It was like a dream come true,” she said.
Only 300 doctors across the US work in this field, so Morgan jumped on the opportunity to raise awareness. “There are so many patients that need our help that don’t even know we’re out there,” she said. “This is the jump we need to make people aware of our specialty.”
‘You can’t make a mistake’
If speaking at TEDMED is exhilarating, it can also be terrifying.
Invited speakers spend months presenting drafts of their presentations to TEDMED staff for editing, giving practice talks by Skype, and running through rehearsals with voice coaches. The stage itself is an intimidating circular platform flanked by video screens. Music pulses. Colored lights swirl. And a huge digital clock counts down the time on the back wall.
“It’s stressful. You can’t make a mistake,” said Nirenberg, the neuroscientist.
“It is definitely not average training for a physician or scientist,” said Dr. Carla Pugh, a surgeon at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It felt like a one-woman Broadway show. There were things I would never talk about in front of my colleagues, that I talked about there.”
In 2014, Pugh gave a TEDMED talk on the need for hands-on clinical training for physicians. (She also serves on TEDMED’s editorial advisory board, which helps identify speakers.) After her presentation, a Fortune 500 company contacted Pugh about funding her research. “I’m very excited about it,” she said.
As the conference wound down last week, Walker drew a standing ovation with a summary of the four themes he’d observed during the event: the power of story, of community, of passion, and of mission.
There was no mention of health or medicine.