At the beginning of this week, the digitally-delivered Bio-Europe Spring 2020 conference launched with 6,000 partnering meetings, 45 company presentations, more than 50 virtual exhibits and 12 panel discussions scheduled.

The conference, in its 14th year, is organized by EBD Group, which decided to restage the entire event on March 5 due to gathering restrictions in Paris following the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The World Health Organization subsequently declared a pandemic on March 11. Bio-Europe Spring typically brings more than 2,000 people together from around the world.

Instead, those attendees are meeting up from their homes with the use of computer cameras and microphones.

“We obviously worked on this event for many, many months, but unfortunately, that is not the reality that we are in right now,” said Anna Chrisman, EBD’s managing director, as she introduced the conference from her living room.

Anna Chrisman, managing director, EBD Group

“It has been a tremendous effort to put this together in only 16 days,” she added, thanking her team that “has literally been working around the clock in order to make this happen.”

Aside from a live session on the first day focused on combatting the coronavirus, other panel sessions were pre-recorded with a grid of participants all speaking from different locations. The videos were pushed out at different times throughout the first few days of the conference and could only be accessed by registered attendees.

Partnering meetings have been held in different web rooms via separate conference links, allowing for video or audio meetings, as well as offering multimedia capabilities for presenting slide decks. The virtual exhibits involve different web pages, instead of booths, that offer video content, downloads and short descriptions that might be found in company brochures, as well as a link to the company’s profile where a registered attendee can request a meeting.

Instead of in-person talks referring to slides, company presentations are videos of those slides with audio of the presenter’s voice. To access any content, names and email addresses are required.

Although there were technical challenges in restaging the conference, many businesses moved forward with scheduled meetings.

The number of workshops and panels was scaled back, from 20 in each of the last three years to 12 this year, but for the ones that continued, they offered much the same experience through video and audio as one would expect during an in-person event with an audience.

Virtual negotiation

One panel, moderated by Linda Pullan, of Pullan Consulting, was focused on dealmaking, titled “Seal the deal: negotiation dos and don’ts.”

Lori Badura, VP and head of business development, neurology and immunology, EMD Serono

“What I like are partners who are transparent and candid about their objectives, their goals, what they want to be able to achieve from the deal and also, importantly, what their limitations are,” said Lori Badura during the panel discussion. She is the vice president and head of business development, neurology and immunology, at Boston-based EMD Serono, the U.S. affiliate of Merck KGaA, of Darmstadt, Germany.

What she does not like are potential partners who push their views in an oppressive way.

“What that really does is truncate the ability to build that relationship, to establish some level of understanding and trust,” Badura said.

Samuel White, director of business development and portfolio management at Morphosys AG, of Planegg, Germany, agreed that transparency is extremely important, as is preparedness with non-confidential briefing materials and a confidential pitch deck, as well as a data room.

“You certainly don’t build trust with a partner if they request at a certain stage to go into a data room and you then tell them, ‘Well, it’s actually going to take six weeks to get there’,” he said.

Juliette Audet, principal, Forbion

Asking for a term sheet before a venture capital firm is permitted to look at the data “signals a little bit of uncertainty around the data,” said Juliette Audet, a principal of Forbion, who is based in Amsterdam.

She also likes to meet with people who are up-front and able to answer questions and bounce off different ideas. What she does not like is the involvement of lawyers until they are necessary.

“The reality is, if you have lawyers to lawyers talking to each other, and both of them are external parties to the VC and also the biotech, it overcomplicates some of the messages,” she said. “The core, the essence of the deals, gets lost a little bit.”

Although the panel gave numerous tips for typical partnering meetings, little was said about the difficulties a virtual meeting imposes. The panelists, in general, wanted more personal encounters and strong relationships with their partners, including private cell phone numbers. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has landed all of the world in extraordinary circumstances.

While 6,000 partnering meetings were scheduled at the beginning of the conference, the number compares to more than 15,400 one-on-one meetings scheduled last year at the Bio-Europe Spring 2019 conference in Vienna. The 45 company presentations and 50 virtual exhibits this year compare with 79 company presentations and 81 exhibits last year. The conference was last held in Paris in 2015.

“The situation that we’re currently facing is new to all of us and it brings completely new challenges into our professional lives as well as into our personal lives,” EBD’s Chrisman said. “But these challenges do not diminish the need to partner, to work together and to be a strong community. If anything, it does the opposite.”