Only 10 years ago at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's first annual convention in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, N.C., about 1,400 people attended.
This year, the media made up more than a third of that number and the 990 participants from Canada could have made up the rest. But that does not account for the thousands from the U.S. and other countries, or the numerous politicians who attended this year's event.
"It's a record year. It is the largest gathering that the biotech community has ever had," BIO President Carl Feldbaum told BioWorld Today Wednesday.
The six-week-old Washington Convention Center hosted its largest convention so far with more than 16,200 registrants. The completed center opened in late April, providing BIO with the only place big enough in the district to hold the convention.
"For several years we were sweating bullets as to whether this would be ready in time," Feldbaum said.
Last year's conference in Toronto had 15,635 registered attendees, a number that Feldbaum thought would drop this year.
"I expected it to go down because of the general state of the economy and because of security concerns, too," he said.
Instead, BIO registered a record number of participants and sold out the exhibit hall eight months ago. There were a total of 1,268 exhibits, a significant percent increase from previous years, Feldbaum said. He also noted that there were several high-tech exhibits this year, as opposed to the cardboard contraptions of yesteryear.
A new feature was Biotech-TV, a fully equipped, glass-enclosed studio that overlooked the conference with two cameras, a switcher, an anchor desk and a fiber-optic feed point to individual news bureaus. The conference also offered a sound-proof audio booth for radio journalists.
More than 500 members of the media attended this year's conference, many to cover Monday's luncheon speech by President George W. Bush. Feldbaum said it was the second time he had met the chief executive, but it was the first time he was able to speak with him one on one.
BIO knew for two weeks that the president was going to speak at the conference, but was bound by security rules not to announce it until Friday.
"For the last two weeks we have been embroiled in security and procedural matters with the White House," Feldbaum said, adding that the president's acceptance of the invitation validates the importance of the biotech industry.
A number of other high-ranking politicians spoke or made appearances at the conference, including nine governors - from Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin; and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge spoke at the luncheon on Wednesday, along with actress Teri Garr, who announced last fall that she has multiple sclerosis.
Members of Congress walked through the exhibit hall, and BIO took eight of its workshop sessions to Capitol Hill, Feldbaum said.
"We thought it smart that if they could not break away to visit us, we would bring the mountain to them," he said.
On Tuesday, Feldbaum spoke at the conference luncheon, urging scientists to work with journalists and to lobby Congress in order to get public support and funding. There will always be opposition, he said, citing bills brought before the House Science Committee 20 years ago to severely restrict recombinant DNA. The bills eventually died and medicines created from recombinant DNA treat 350 million patients worldwide today, including Garr, who uses Serono SA's Rebif.
Feldbaum noted that only seven of the 535 members of Congress are scientists, and only 21 others are health care professionals. Scientists and politicians often speak two different languages, so Feldbaum urged biotech scientists to speak plainly to journalists, using common analogies and describing the impact of their research in order to get their stories published, gain the public interest and, thereby, gain the interest of politicians who will help fund and support such research.
"The politics of science demand that we participate fully and robustly, because politics is not a spectator sport, particularly here in the USA," Feldbaum said on Tuesday. "We cannot be up there in the stands, either cheering or jeering - we must be on the field.
"You can't win . . . if you don't play."
As the conference neared an end Wednesday, Feldbaum said he did not notice a single protester this year and commented that some of them may have gone to protest a conference in California on genetically modified organisms. Otherwise, he said, the aftermath of Sept. 11 has caused many protesters to step back.
"People are concerned about things other than whether a genetically modified tomato got into their ketchup," he said.
The general mood of the conference attendees was positive, unlike last year when ImClone Systems Inc.'s CEO Samuel Waksal was being indicted for insider trading. Things are on the upswing, industry executives said in the various sessions. The financing environment is getting better, as is the outlook for FDA approvals.
"Signs are the industry is moving in the right direction," Feldbaum said. "The tone's enormously upbeat."
The conference concluded with a closing reception Wednesday at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. BIO 2004 will be held next June in San Francisco.