National Editor

SAN FRANCISCO - The fewer-than-expected demonstrators who showed up at the BIO 2004 International Convention may have gained the media coverage they came for, panel sessions proved intriguing, and the exhibit hall was full of life, but the real activity likely went on behind the scenes.

For the past several years, the Biotechnology Industry Organization has included in the program a "biodevelopment" piece that involves setting up closed meetings between companies to help germinate deals.

"If you're not headed there, you may miss it," said Carl Feldbaum, BIO's president, of the cordoned-off area in the exhibit hall. But a startling number of company officials were headed there. More than 5,500 match-ups were arranged this year.

"When [BIO staffers] told me what they expected, I said, No, that must be wrong. It must be 400, not 4,000,'" Feldbaum said, crediting an "insatiable desire for deal making - if you get a chance, take it." Also, he noted, the BIO event provides a neutral ground for companies to meet on, rather than under the auspices of a sponsoring bank or other entity.

Estimates of protesters expected to try "shutting down" the convention were exposed, in the end, as crazily high.

"Frankly, it fizzled," Feldbaum said of the demonstration. "The highest count we saw [of activists who showed up] was anywhere from 300 to 500 people, after all the Sturm and Drang of last week."

Some of the convention-goers tried to have normal conversations with the yelling sign-carriers, Feldbaum noted, among them Elliott Hillback, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme Corp.

"I talked to a couple of folks, just in passing," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today. "The truth is, we talk to people who disagree with us 360 days a year. Then our annual meeting comes and [protesters] complain, No one ever listens to us.' Well, they tried to disrupt our meeting. It's our turn to get together."

He pointed out "lots of risk-benefit analyses and very important social and environmental issues that are being seriously discussed, but not by them," adding that "in some cases, [demonstrating] is an opportunity for the release of anger and frustration" over such problems as homelessness and the war in Iraq.

What Feldbaum learned was less about activists' concerns than about San Francisco itself, he said.

"There is a resident bunch of folks who are in the protest industry, and they crank it up at every opportunity," he said. "In order to gain mass, they include every issue under the sun, which makes them very diffuse, so there's no focus whatsoever."

The same could hardly be said of panel sessions arranged for this year. Standing out among them was talk of systems biology, Feldbaum said, citing Leroy Hood's remarks (among others) about "using the blood as a window to hundreds of tests to determine your pretty exact physical condition and the state of your disease."

Hood is president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, a nonprofit research institute. He also has co-founded a number of biotechnology companies, including Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Although systems biology "was written about and thought about for some time, it's being actualized," Feldbaum said. "These are very serious people into commercial drug development, and this is what they're talking about.

"It's always made sense, we just never figured out why. Now we're getting some clues, and some evidence to back it up."

The BIO convention, with about 17,000 attendees, ended Wednesday.