Biotech Conferences: How to Survive JPM, BIO and the Speed-Dating Madness
This year's busy BIO conference
The conference business is alive and well – biotech entrepreneurs can easily spend significant time and money on scientific and business conventions. The challenge is to determine which of these are worth the cost and effort and having a solid plan to ensure you build useful connections, learn something valuable and advance partnerships & fundraising.
Types of Conferences
There are a few large-scale, highly-attended conferences, many smaller regional convocations, and numerous scientific/academic gatherings. The largest among these are the annual BIO conference, JP Morgan and in oncology, AACR and ASCO. BIO also runs several fundraising and CEO focused events in NYC and California and there are 2 BIO-Europe events (Fall and Spring) each year. Boston BD and Boston CEO are more local peer-networking events. Biopharm America has been trying to build an east-coast presence and is now part of a “Biotech Week Boston”
There are more focused scientific/business meetings that are a fit in some cases – Siamab worked on antibodies and ADCs and would participate in the annual PEGs Meeting and World ADC. These events include deeper scientific content, but receive strong attention from industry compared to pure scientific conferences that focus more on the academic MD/PhD world.
Key Questions to Ask When Deciding on Conferences
Some of the key questions when deliberating about which conference to invest your time and money into include: How big/intimate is the conference? Who attends? What level executives attend? Who will you meet? Is it more mid-level scientific leadership attending, BD, or senior executives? Is there a speed-dating structure or do you need to build your own appointment schedule?
In many cases, CEOs of small biotechs that attend with their BD colleague(s) end up meeting with mid-level director/VPs from pharma, VC and larger biotechs. Many conferences will advertise a list of top-tier speakers who will attend – however briefly – but that can be difficult to pin down.
BIO and JPM are huge – 20,000+ participants from all over the globe. BIO Europe is a more modestly sized event with excellent participation from European pharma. Bionetwork is an example of a smaller event in a great location (the Ritz in Laguna Beach, CA) so there are often somewhat higher-level executives present in a more intimate setting.
Alongside the actual event it is important to think about what outside events/receptions are connected to the main event. Which are worth attending? How will you get invites? For the largest meetings (BIO, JPM) there are often guides available online to the plethora of receptions and events.
JP Morgan takes over Union Square in San Francisco the second week of January. This conference has two definitions – there is the formal conference in the Hilton Hotel, to which a small subset of the larger and public firms attend and often present. There is also the mass of meetings, events, and side conferences that also can be understood as part of the madness that is JP Morgan. Effectively the entire industry - biotech and pharma, investors, and some vendors – attend various aspects and take over all of Union Square and downtown San Francisco.
JPM has come under recent criticism and can certainly be a hugely expensive time-sink. Bruce Booth wrote a blog post on his recent concerns, and it is certainly true that hotel rooms are crazy expensive, cafés charge seat rental fees, and many conversations and meetings can be too quick and superficial to be of any real value.
However, if managed carefully, valuable meetings and connections can be had. Some specific suggestions for scrappy biotech CEOs:
1. You don’t need to stay in Union Square. I’ve often stayed in 2-star motels 1-2 miles away for reasonable rates. I’ve enjoyed the walk to Union Square and an Uber ride back at night is easy.
2. Plan well in advance who you want to meet with and reach out to them in November to ensure you get on their schedule. Most large pharmas attend in force and rent entire floors of major hotels.
3. Side conferences like the Biotech Showcase offer a lower-cost venue for speed dating and a good complement to meetings you’ve coordinated yourself.
4. If you can find a small, out of the way dive bar, Chinese restaurant or café you can set up your own meetings. I’ve had great luck within 2 blocks of Union Square.
Bio is the other major annual event, typically late June, that rotates among large cities – Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia. There is a huge exhibitor space full of representatives from nearly every state, country, and biopharma company. This means strong networking opportunities and tons of free gifts – you can stock up on hand sanitizer, free pens, and all the flavored coffee you can drink.
The speed-dating partnering section (at extra cost) is a big part of BIO as well. A large area is set aside for hundreds of tiny makeshift meeting rooms, each given exciting names like A32 and XX45. Speed daters will spend 25 minutes in a meeting, and then, at the sound of a chime, move to the next room.
BIO is attended by vendors of all kinds, as well as biopharma BD – typically director and VP level execs. It can be a great event to meet with key contract research organizations with whom you are working or want to get to know. You can also learn about all sorts of resources and services available to early stage biotech firms – from IP and legal to grant writing support and much more.
Like JPM, there are a large number of evening receptions and events – both large ones held as part of the BIO conference (and a few mid-sized ones for CEOs and BD execs) as well as smaller (though still large) events held by law firms, big pharma and other vendors.
Similar to JPM, advanced planning is essential – both for speed dating and identifying others (vendors, pharma, potential partners) with whom you want to meet outside of the partnering area.
Speed Dating 101
Many of the larger conferences (BIO, Bio-Europe, Biotech Showcase, Bio Investor Forum) include partnering (i.e. speed-dating) as an optional or central part of the event. Participants create an online profile on their company, product(s), technology and team, search with others to meet with and then request meetings. Others who want to meet with you send you requests, and if both parties agree, you’ll be automatically scheduled together for a 30-minute meeting slot – usually in a small cubicle.
At BIO, you’ll be inundated with vendor meeting requests and will need to sort through these to find the more meaty/useful meetings. At events like BIO Europe that are primarily partnering oriented, there are fewer vendors and the focus is clearly on BD and fundraising. It is often more fruitful to not rely solely on the speed-dating app; connecting with organizations and people you wish to meet with outside of the conference system and then agreeing to use it for scheduling purposes often yields more valuable meetings.
I find speed-dating meetings to be useful but limited. They can serve as an introduction to a potential partner and are a good way to get a conversation with a company going. They can also be a good time to reconnect in person with those whom you have an ongoing conversation or relationship that is mostly taking place by regular conference calls and videocons. I haven’t typically done serious deal-making or negotiating at these events, but they do play an important role for me in building and maintaining relationships.
Business cards, decks, & follow-ups
Bring lots of business cards – I find that I use cards less these days generally except at large conferences. I also of course receive many and have now setup a process where I attempt to both scan the card into my iPhone and also add the person to my Linkedin before the meeting is complete.
I’ll typically prepare a specific non-confidential deck for the meeting that is less than 20 slides with a few in an appendix for specific questions that may arise. However, I find I use the deck very occasionally and more often summarize the company, technology and pipeline in a few minutes to give more time to conversation, relationship-building, and determination of potential interest. I’ll also send the deck and a key player or two immediately following the meeting to keep my longer-term to-do list short.
Posters & presentations
At the more scientific conferences – AACR, ASCO, PEGS – there is often an opportunity to apply to present a poster. Depending on your stage in the scientific progress, publication/PR strategy, and timing, this can be a good way to begin to tell your story more broadly. A poster with interesting and novel data (once IP filings are complete) can be supported by a press release and direct outreach to potential partners, inviting them to visit your poster, and setting the stage for follow-up 1-1 conversations.
The more corporate-focused meetings, like BIO and Biotech Showcase, offer the opportunity to do company presentations. This typically costs another $1-2K and offers a 15-20 minute slot. I’ve not found these to be very useful at the early stage, and it seems that most attendees who approach me afterwards are more interested in selling their services and products. You can press release the presentation to add a little more value, but it is important to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis here.
Receptions & events
I typically attend 2-3 events/receptions per night at conferences like JPM and BIO – often teaming up with a colleague or fellow CEO or BD friend. I prepare a list of people I hope to meet at various events and do my best to make a new contact or two at each. I also get tired of the large-scale schmoozing, so I try to organize a small dinner or two later in the evening with a few industry friends to catch up and decompress a bit.
Making it all work
Strategic attendance of conferences is a key part of long-term BD strategy -- but it takes significant investment, planning and outreach to maximize the value. Conferences can be useful in building relationships, advancing conversations, identifying potential partners, and setting up future interactions to drive partnerships forward. With good planning, execution and follow-up, they can be a high-intensity time to rapidly make multiple useful connections.