I put my 2010 corporate earnings into negative territory this week by attending the world’s largest confab of biotech and pharmaceutical companies- the Bio Industry Organization’s BIO 2010, held May 2-6, at McCormick Place Convention Center, Chicago, IL (BIO 2010). I am guessing that there are more than 15,000 attendees here, representing about every aspect of the for-profit life sciences sector, from the world’s largest (e.g., Pfizer with annual revenues of more than $50 billion) to the most modest (self-employed consultants like me). It is the end of the third of four days and I am sitting outside the convention complex at the edge of one the world’s largest bodies of fresh water, Lake Michigan, and enjoying the mild temperatures, the coming evening light, and a view of a horizon so flat and blue that it strikes one as unreal. Seagulls circling, bikers speeding down the bike path, joggers trotting along, everyone who passes by on his/her own mission while my head spins with information overload. BIO is its own world, powered by the 15,000 plus attendees, each with their own story to tell, their own business objectives, personal hopes and dreams, and multiple reasons for congregating at this meeting. I just had an interesting chat with a chap from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) who does emerging infectious disease surveillance. What about the fungal infection that gained notoriety by growing deep in the lungs of a few unfortunates who happened to enjoyed the woods of the Pacific Northwest? Not to worry, only 30 cases so far and the CDC has issued an alert: bronchitis plus back country experience means treat aggressively with anti-fungals (good advice for most of us but too late for the index cases, his bread and butter). But Rift Valley Fever has shown up in Germany in tourists how have been in South Africa; stay in the cities if you are going to the World Cup (not me). Of course, soccer hooliganism is a greater threat. The CDC is concerned since the bugs are evolving but a pandemic is not in the cards (yet). I am reassured, have another Pinot Grigio, and admire the view out the windows of the Vista Ballroom.
Take this conversation and multiply it by 50 and you’ll have an idea of my neural overload. Everyone I have met has a story, a life history that I have put in context to my own meager experience (relative to the other 6.8 billion others on Earth). Last night I met two sisters at O’Grady’s bar on Michigan Avenue at a Boston University-sponsored event who, chance would have it, grew up in Newton, five miles from where I live now, who are trying to get their recently-widowed mother connected with nice men about her age. Yes, I know such a person and we exchanged email addresses and we’ll see what stories that result from the almost-random encounter. Today in the multi-football field-sized exhibit hall, I am approached by a familiar face. It is Konrad Powell-Jones (I wish I had a hyphenated name) who I haven’t seen in more than ten years. We shook hands exchanged cards, and I’ll follow up since he is is still working in Toronto, and Toronto is the home of the McLaughlin-Rotman Center, a fairly big name in global health (Rotman Center). From his card, I conclude he is doing the solo practitioner gig like me; maybe he can connect me there. In the to-be-continued category is Pieter Stolk of euSEND, a new organization based in the Netherlands which, according to the article the BIO 2010 newsletter, is aimed at developing “concrete solutions for neglected disease in an economically sustainable manner.” I missed him so left my card at the Holland pavilion and will try to connect with him tomorrow when I am volunteering as a room monitor at the Global Biotechnology Issues session. At lunch I sat in on a panel presentation by three luminaries who are concerned about the US (and international) public “irrationality” preventing governments from approving biotech-generated plants and products. Did you know that subsistence farmers in India want use a BT-engineered eggplant called Brinjal but an Indian agricultural minister has subverted the approval process, apparently for political purposes (Brinjal Paper)? I didn’t.
A bit of a disappointment was the Partnering for Global Health Forum held on Monday and organized by BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH). I was hoping to learn from my betters about how to direct the biotech/pharma interest (and experience) in making money in the “emerging markets” like China, Brazil, and India into investment in new products and services for the “under-served” emerging markets, too. To be fair, I haven’t digested all that I heard, and there were two announcements at the meeting that I have yet to study: the Clinton Foundation’s access to medicines program is connecting with companies and a South African agency and MIT joined the Open Innovation Pool (BIO PR). I offer one contrast though: the lunch time speaker at the Global Health Forum lunch illustrated his talk with photos of kids who were dying but offered no solutions but on Thursday morning the chair of the session entitled “Solving Challenges in Global Health Diagnostics, Creating Opportunities in Global Markets” had four speakers who are. I’d rather attend the latter and skip the global health voyeurism.
The sun is going down here lakeside so I’ll meander over the excursion boat that is loading up with meeting attendees for what appears to be an invitation-only event. No problem getting on, a business card and I am welcome. It is an event by Chempetitive, a life sciences marketing group (Chempetitive) to publicize a relatively new “Illinois Medical District.” Which is what? The ticket-takers don’t seem to know, but on board there is pizza, a pianist at a Kimball grand piano, and an open bar. I take a glass of Chablis on the bow deck, fire up my iPod, and enjoy the setting sun gleaming off the buildings of the skyline of one of the greatest of US cities. But I can’t help but wonder why I was born to a privileged life as opposed to one of 20,000 lives cut tragically short today by a preventable disease.