VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Located in one corner of the conference hall, the message center teems with attendees all day long.

During breaks between panel sessions and workshops, they collect messages that direct them to their next liaison, or perhaps to a new relationship. Hunkered in small conference rooms during half-hour and hour-long blocks of time, representatives from biotech and pharmaceutical companies, as well as financiers, have spent nearly all their time in such informal, meet-and-greet sessions.

Some provide fruitful leads, some prove less productive and some simply serve as an opportunity to spend time with current drug development collaborators or contract research customers. In any case, the meetings demonstrate an eagerness toward partnering.

Some efforts involve international relationships, and panelists Tuesday addressed the topic of collaborative efforts in Asia during an early morning session.

Panel members emphasized market opportunities in three distinct regions - Japan, Southeast Asia and China. While Asian alliances traditionally have focused on Japan, the latter two regions are emerging as viable partnering areas for various reasons.

Barbara Kosacz, the session's moderator and a partner and head of the national life sciences practice at Cooley Godward LLP, said cross-border alliances are distributed by more than 40 percent through deals in both Europe and the Americas, though only 8 percent in Asia. In the future, she expects that to change.

"If you look at biotechnology in the Asia-Pacific region, it's growing in every respect," Kosacz said. "[There are increases] in revenues, numbers of employees and numbers of companies."

Factors leading to such growth include a shift away from a perception of non-Japanese Asia as a source of manufacturing and cheap labor. Instead, the region is being viewed as a location for technology- and science-based economies, said Chris Tan, president of Calidris R&D. He pointed to epicenters of biotech research in Okinawa, at a university being established there, and in Singapore, the site of Biopolis, an integrated research and development complex that houses scientists from big pharma and biotech companies.

"Suddenly overnight, there is a huge market," Tan said. "For the first time in a turbulent history in Asia seen 50 or 60 years ago, the Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asians are getting together with a will to build a knowledge-based economy for the whole Asia-Pacific region."

Research centers in Asia have lured overseas talent to their operations, and also have worked to retain local talent. He advised Western companies not to view partnering opportunities in the region simply as an add-on to other territories, but rather for the growing potential Asia offers.

Perhaps most intriguing is the area's sleeping giant, China.

The world's most populous country offers a largely untapped market to companies seeking partnerships, said Sam Lou, the chief operating officer of Crimson Pharma. He said recent and continued forecasts of gross domestic product growth, coupled with a push toward globalization and improved protection for intellectual property, make China a nice fit for drug development.

In fact, Lou pitched the idea of more efficient drug development through collaborations with Chinese partners.

"When you're working with a partner in China, you can dramatically reduce the cost of reaching your next milestone by getting there earlier," he said.

An Asian country more traditionally associated with partnerships, Japan, is experiencing a market downsize as a result of a shrinking population and consolidation. Richard Hammel, a partner at ProPharma International Partners, spoke about trends toward consolidation in Japan and a growing presence of multinational pharmaceutical companies. But he added that large Japanese companies will still need to fill their pipeline, and the opportunity for licensing arrangements for biotech companies in that territory will continue.