SAN FRANCISCO - The hype for BIO 2004 begins miles from the Moscone Center, starting this year at the San Francisco airport. While picking up luggage at baggage claim, attendees could view the ad taken for Nektar Therapeutics that informed them of the company's location on the exhibit room floor.
And traveling into the city along 101, watchful registrants might have noticed the billboard that read, "Genentech welcomes you to BIO 2004 and the birthplace of biotechnology." The City by the Bay wears that honor - history tells that the science began here in 1976 with the founding of Genentech Inc., and the theme for the conference this year, "Where it all began," is a nod in Genentech's direction.
Biotech's hottest company, fresh off a stock split, is nestled in an industrial park in South San Francisco. Officially located at 1 DNA Way, the Genentech complex sprawls from building to building and sits on the edge of the bay. For biotech followers, South San Francisco is rife with the science - Genentech's close neighbors include Tularik Inc., Celera, Sugen Inc. and Exelixis Inc.
Monday was typical San Francisco weather: sunny, clear and a comfortable 65 degrees. Down in the Gateway Ballroom for breakfast, the topic was the pioneering attitude of biotechnology, and that meant Genentech. Moderated by Charlie Rose, Emmy-winning broadcast journalist, the panel included Thomas Perkins, founding chairman of Genentech; William Rutter, co-founder of Chiron Corp.; and Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute of Systems Biology, as well as the newest recipient of the Biotechnology Heritage Award - he was bestowed the honor in a short ceremony that opened the breakfast plenary session.
Perkins also is a founder and partner of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, a venture capital company. While there, he brought together the first fund dedicated to a very young biotechnology industry, which raised $8 million, half of which was returned to the partners, uninvested. In the panel session, Perkins detailed how Genentech got its start.
When he was approached with the idea behind Genentech, he felt "the risks were just enormous," he said. He wasn't sure if "God would let you create a new life form," referring to the process of injecting genetic material into plasmids, which would then manufacture desired proteins.
His initial investment in Genentech was $100,000, giving the VC firm one-third of the company. How things have changed - Genentech (NYSE:DNA) closed Monday at $57.25, down $2.39, giving it a market cap of about $60 billion.
He pointed out that the last time the BIO conference was held in San Francisco, in 1995, only about 2,700 people showed up to "watch and talk about biotech."
Today part of the watching means the exhibit hall. With 400,000 square feet of space this year, the hall is the largest ever for the BIO conference. Attendees were let inside around 9:15 a.m., as a group dressed as a Chinese dragon officially opened the halls, accompanied by pounding drums. There are 1,375 exhibits this year, including 28 state pavilions and 31 international pavilions. The exhibit hall is below ground, and runs beneath the street that separates the North and South sections of the center. Between the buildings and above ground, smokers congregate and the attendees sit on benches, face up to a cloudless sky.
While it gave birth to biotech, San Francisco also is famous for its history of political demonstration. That spirit is alive and well today. Protestors have been visible and there is an anticipated show of strength for today, as demonstrators have vowed to shut down the meeting.
So security is tight. Registrants picking up their badge and conference bag were told, "Don't wear your badge on the street."
Because of the protestors?
A security guard nodded. "See them right there," he said on Sunday, pointing with the tip of his walkie-talkie to a group filing past the Moscone Center down Fourth Street. "It's fine if they just walk that way. If they come down this road, it's a different story."
BIO has taken appropriate precautions, of course, working with local authorities as well as federal. There is a heavy police presence. Barricades line the Moscone Center on all sides and uniformed men with dogs mingle inside with the attendees, estimated at 15,290 as of Sunday night.
At 5:30 p.m., the panel sessions were done and the first day closed, with nothing official planned for the evening. Attendees left on buses, or made their way through San Francisco's streets on foot, joining workers departing their jobs and making their way home. Unless they happen to be employees at Genentech, who might leave their offices, make their way to the parking lot and stare over the bay, probably talking about biotechnology.