The Midwest isn't always the first place that comes to mind when discussing the biotech industry. But all that should change this week as more than 18,000 industry leaders, company executives and investors converge on the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago for the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual meeting.

It's true that the Windy City might, at first, seem an unlikely location to host the BIO 2006 annual international convention.

"When you talk about biotechnology, people tend to think of Boston, San Francisco, San Diego and Research Triangle Park," said Jim Greenwood, BIO president, "and Chicago might be the place you think of flying over on your way to one of those places."

That also made the organization "a little nervous" when putting together the 14th annual convention, since usually a significant number of attendees are people who live and work near the meeting and can drive to it, Greenwood said.

"We were worried about whether we would meet our attendance goals in Chicago," he told BioWorld Today, "but as it turns out, the numbers are higher than we expected."

Of the more than 18,000 expected here this week, about a third are international visitors. Firms from 42 states and 35 countries will be represented. As of Wednesday, 275 companies were scheduled to present, well more than the 200 that presented at the BIO 2005 conference in Philadelphia. Nearly 2,000 exhibitors fill about 179,000 square feet of exhibit space, and more than 255 academic posters are expected.

"When you start looking at the region, you see there is a lot going on in terms of pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies," Greenwood added, an idea that's encapsulated in this year's theme of "Brilliant science, smart business, better living, it's all here."

"The idea is that all the ingredients are in Chicago, and the more that investors and venture capitalists become aware of that, the more likely it is that the biotech industry will expand here," Greenwood said. "It's such as exciting time for the industry right now, and great enthusiasm for the pace of growth and change."

With a Midwestern location, BIO decided to focus on some of the local aspects of the industry, taking advantage of activities by some of the regional companies, such as Dow Agrosciences LLC in Indianapolis and Monsanto Co. in St. Louis.

"It's a great reason to highlight food and agriculture," Greenwood said, with the high spot being the display of a 1,000-square-foot field of genetically engineered corn in the convention center.

Farmers who grow Bt corn for developing countries will be there to talk about "how genetically enhanced crops have increased their productivity and the quality of their lives," he added.

BIO 2006 has added several new topics to the list of breakout sessions. One will focus on devices and diagnostics, an area that is big with several firms across the Midwest. Emerging markets, marketing and regenerative medicine also are scheduled for further investigation during breakout sessions.

Plenary speakers scheduled this week include former President Bill Clinton, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, former Central Intelligence Agency Director R. James Woolsey, governors Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Fox Network anchor Neil Cavuto, former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson and comedian Bernie Mac.

The biggest challenge for BIO, when planning this year's conference, was the move from its usual May/June time frame up to April, due to scheduling conflicts at the McCormick Convention Center.

"That caused us some angst," Greenwood said, "because by the time we left the '05 convention in Philly in June, we really only had about nine months to pull together this event.

Next year's conference will be held in May in Boston.