Perhaps the best way to gauge the changes in the biotech industry is to walk through the exhibit hall at BIO 2004.
As biotechnology has grown internationally, so has the global presence at the world's premier biotechnology conference, and this year the conference was the most international it's ever been.
In the early years, the exhibit hall was filled with company booths. Then regional pavilions began popping up. Now, those regional and country pavilions have overtaken the company slots - if not in total numbers, than certainly in terms of size and majesty. The Canadian pavilion is so large it actually can be easy to miss - one attendee said she was looking left and right for the pavilion, only to realize she already was standing in its midst, under its nationalist red-and-white canopy.
For those attending the conference for the first time, there were surprises, lessons to be learned and things to consider in the years ahead.
In the Taiwan pavilion, young PharmaEssentia Corp. made its first trip to a BIO conference. Founded in October, the company's long-term goals center on drug discovery, specifically for hepatitis B and C. Its research is at the screening stage now, but PharmaEssentia expects to move into preclinical work in 2005 and file an investigational new drug application in 2006 in either of the hepatitis indications.
But in an attempt to avoid years of being a financial black hole, sucking up private round after private round with no balancing revenue stream, it also sells refined pharmaceutical reagents, said Ching-leou Teng, vice president of operations. The company has a U.S. distributor, Frontier Scientific Inc., based in Logan, Utah.
Teng has a Ph.D. and is a scientist, working on the company's hepatitis B program. She was surprised by the business atmosphere at BIO; she had assumed the event would have more of a science focus. Knowing what she knows now, company representatives will "prepare better next year, and do more homework," so they know who they want to contact regarding business topics once at the conference.
There was only one other representative with her. Needing a constant presence in the booth makes it hard to take in a panel session or listen to a plenary speaker. In 2005, she'd like to bring four to six people, so they "can spend more time on the seminars."
She said another aspect of the conference she didn't expect was the rise in legal representation.
"There are so many lawyers here, and they are so aggressive," she said, admitting that she usually just "stayed in the lab."
"I should have that kind of attitude," she said.
Opinions on aggressive American lawyers vary, of course, but as biotechnology has proved a money-generating machine, law firms have taken notice. Their presence at the conference also is growing: Leydig, Voit & Mayer Ltd.; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP; Schwegman, Lundberg, Woessner & Kluth PA; Bell Boyd & Lloyd LLC; Alston & Bird LLP - the list goes on. BIO doesn't break down exhibiters into individual groups, but it's hard to wander an aisle in the exhibit hall and not see a law firm.
Attendees would pass many making the trip from Taiwan's pavilion to the North hall, where India's pavilion is located, settled next to New Zealand's and Australia's, not too far from Pennsylvania's (at which a motorcycle was given away on Wednesday).
In the Genome Valley portion of India's pavilion, Kiran Sharma spoke to registrants. He's the principal scientist in the Genetic Transformation Laboratory, working for ICRISAT - the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. It also is his first time at a BIO conference.
Although he has been to other conferences, it's "the first time we have put up this type of [pavilion]," he said, looking up at the banners above him. He acknowledged the business focus of the event, but as a scientist, the conference is "an eye-opener for us to see what other technologies are out there."
Wandering through row after row of booths in the North and South halls, Sharma took in what others were doing with their science, because "sometimes you aren't aware of the importance of your own technology," or in what novel ways it might be applied.
ICRISAT is nonprofit and apolitical. It works mainly on agricultural research to increase the livelihood of society. The work being done at ICRISAT is the type pointed to by biotechnology advocates when arguing against anti-GM crop movements. Sharma, for one, is irritated by protests, such as the one he witnessed Tuesday.
"Those people make me angry," he said. "They've never been hungry. They walk into a grocery store and have a choice of 10 types of tomatoes to pick from." He shook his head. In India, many things most Americans take for granted don't exist.
He was a little disappointed by the presence of ag-bio at the conference - his trips through the halls turned up "five or six stalls on agribusiness," but plenty on cancer and other diseases.
"Those are important, too, but I'm looking at the big picture here," he told BioWorld Today. "All science cannot be like that."