National Editor

If you hadn't noticed the gradual change over the years in San Francisco's once-bellwether meeting, previously known as "H&Q," then you must not have been there.

But it seemed just about everybody was there. Crammed into the Westin St. Francis Hotel, jostling for seats in meeting rooms, and arranging meetings "under the big clock" in the lobby, attendees from mid-cap, small-cap and huge biotechnology firms enjoyed meeting with old friends and deep pockets.

Nothing stays the same. From year to year, as sponsoring firms merged, the emphasis changed to focus on "frankly, a lot of the larger-cap firms, big pharma, hospitals and other service groups," noted Morrie Ruffin, vice president of business development and emerging companies for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington. In other words, a different ball game.

H&Q, now known as the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference, "will remain an important event in the industry," Ruffin predicted, but BIO has another idea.

BIO has scheduled for today its kickoff conference call with five banks that are co-sponsoring "BIO Venture Forum: A Conference to Showcase the Best Private and Public Company Growth Opportunities in the Healthcare Industry," to be held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Oct. 13-15. BIO's conference replaces the BIO VentureForumWest meeting held each fall in San Francisco - and may fill the gap left by the transformed "H&Q" event.

"The sense among our membership was that we need to get back to a conference that focuses on health care, but primarily biopharmaceuticals and biotech," Ruffin told BioWorld Today. "We want to recapture that old mood, but hopefully we've identified areas where there could have been improvements going along."

One, of course, is the overcrowded venue. The Palace Hotel is "an old hotel, but it's big, with very wide corridors," Ruffin said, adding that BIO also intends to "do some different things with respect to format, try and mix things up a little bit so it's not your typical conference."

He declined to offer details, but said the long-missed analyst picks that rounded off the H&Q conference in the old days - scrapped because of a tighter regulatory environment for banks - might return in some form. "We're not a bank, so we have a little more freedom," he said. "This will be a conference with banks as our partners, but we see it as a broad community event," accommodating 250 to 280 presenting companies, Ruffin added.

The sponsoring banks are Banc of America Securities, with principal offices in San Francisco and New York; CIBC World Markets Corp., of New York; Citigroup, of New York; Lazard Freres & Co., of New York; and Pacific Growth Equities, of San Francisco.

Andrew Weisenfeld, managing director with Banc of America in New York, called the emerging company universe of both private and early stage public companies "the lifeblood of the industry going forward. They are the next Amgens, and they provide growth opportunities for the larger-cap universe. Industry-wide, and from a banking standpoint, we need to support that marketplace."

Banc of America is one of two lead sponsors; the other is Lazard.

In planning the conference, Ruffin said BIO's board and members talked about "creating a super-event that would allow for some consolidation among banks. That doesn't necessarily mean all of these banks will give up their own conferences, but it allows them the opportunity to think about their conference strategy differently."

From the buy side, he added, rumblings have long been heard that "all these bank conferences were becoming a burden because there was so many, and they were not very different from each other."

Getting the banks to work together was the challenge.

"That's why we think this is such a big deal - it was not a foregone conclusion that we'd be able to do it," Ruffin said. Between 15 and 20 board members were "involved in outreach" before the five banks were arrived at, he said.

"We did it based on the ones we thought could work with us, ones that are active in the health care space," Ruffin said, adding that BIO has been "working with an advisory board of all the leading venture firms in the industry, and they've supported us."

Weisenfeld said getting a group of competing banks together was something BIO is uniquely suited to do.

"It has the element of Switzerland, because it's BIO," he told BioWorld Today, adding that investors, venture capitalists and industry executives likely are to find such an event more enticing than the usual, single-bank-sponsored conferences.

"To get them to dedicate the time, you have to create the critical mass to make it worth it for them," he said.

After today's conference call, BIO and the banks will put the finishing touches on a formal announcement of the conference, to be made next week, Ruffin said. Reservations for the event will start within the next couple of months, with updates provided at the BIO website,

Said Weisenfeld: "We're still sort of broad brush. We're not into specifics yet."