National Editor

CHICAGO - Some outsiders may think of the Midwest as the land of political conservatism, personal severity and bad haircuts, but the Biotechnology Industry Organization's first Mid-America VentureForum Conference suggested an openness to new ideas that violates the stereotype.

"This one is gangbusters," said Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, about the conference, which ended Friday. Similar BIO events held for the first time on the East and West coasts drew 250 to 350 people, he noted.

"Here in Chicago, maybe it's pent-up demand, but we hit 400 [registrants]," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today.

Speakers duly acknowledged the region's less-daring approach to business, but "the things that were said had to be said. It was a very realistic set of seminars," with politeness all around, Feldbaum said.

Some speakers, for example, "referred to the tendency of Midwestern universities to hang onto their technology as if they were the crown jewels and not let them go," whereas other educational institutions had "grown accustomed to not knowing what the value of the technology was, and thus being willing to license it out," he said.

Talk went from the "high theoretical" to practical matters, such as an apparent distaste in many Midwestern folk for airplane flights that take them more than one hop away from home without a business meeting, Feldbaum said.

"They tend to want to go to clusters," he said, noting the penchant represents thrift - another of the Midwest's fabled and praiseworthy characteristics.

The topic of lower and more carefully rationed resources came up during a workshop Friday that included Thomas Churchwell, managing partner of ARCH Development Partners LLC, of Chicago.

One "great advantage of our Midwest style of doing things is that we've never had a lot of money to put to work, so we don't need a big reward," he said.

A half dozen new venture capital firms, each "likely to succeed," have formed recently, Churchwell said, and "every one of the six states [in the area where ARCH operates] has some kind of a program to significantly increase the amount of venture capital that's going to be put to work focused on early stage [projects], and a lot of it is going to be life science focused."

The Midwest is heating up, he said.

"Five years ago, there would have been three of us at this meeting, and look what we got," Churchwell said.

Perhaps the most eye-opening remark made on the panel, which discussed how to form successful alliances, came from Joseph McCracken, vice president of business and commercial development for South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc., who said "the current environment is terrific for biotechnology. I've never seen a better time."

A factor that "has people concerned," McCracken allowed, is that "the public markets have essentially shut off or ratcheted down."

Aside from this, "we have all the payoff from sequencing the human genome [and] from all the peripheral technologies available to us," he said. "Medical practice is changing. It's an exciting time."

McCracken pointed out "the old biotechnology companies - the Genentechs, the Amgens, the Genzymes - were all spawned in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was an awful lot more public capital that got invested last year in biotechnology companies than there was in 1979 and 1980, probably all the way up through 1985."

The year 2000 was one of feverish investment, he added, but many of the ideas funded were "crazy," and that era is history.

Other debate centered on what kind of products and technology big pharmaceutical companies are looking for these days, and whether the harsh economy is having an impact across the board.

"There is a financial damper, it appears, for many of the start-ups," said Edward Pagani, director of strategic alliances in New York-based Pfizer Inc.'s research laboratories in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But the situation for Pfizer, "and everyone else in big pharma, doesn't change," he said. These companies still need "the help of creative individuals in the biotech community to bring forth good ideas [and] help us help them meet their goals," Pagani said. "Our budget hasn't been cut."

"This [low economic] cycle is going to reverse itself," he said. "Who knows when it will be. It may be two months from now, it may be eight months from now." Meanwhile, Pagani said, "people seem to focus a little bit more, work a little harder" under the spur of hard conditions - not such a bad thing.

Don Lucas, who is responsible for licensing at Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble's organization for discovery and early development, said the company has an adequate number of late-stage compounds and is looking more for early stage potential, but "we don't want to spend a lot of time and effort creating new tools. It's kind of a distraction."

Lucas said P&G prefers to "find something that's already cooked," and work with a partner on advancing it further.

"We're a small pharmaceutical company, we're highly focused," he said. "We're not going to be buying Merck or anybody else. We're going to stay with our task."

The task now involves research in musculoskeletal and cardiovascular disease.

"We're kind of in a strange situation now," with six Phase III programs and one Phase I program, he said, and the effort to find more products in earlier development is ongoing.

Andy Eibling, alliance manager at Eli Lilly and Co., of Indianapolis, said his firm's approach is different.

"We'd love to have something that is shrink-wrapped and on the shelf that we could buy and plug and play," Eibling said, but "if you're really trying to change the game," a more adventurous outlook is called for.

"The development/technology area is still one where we continue to be active," he said.

Feldbaum said the Midwest, which is proving fertile in ways that go beyond farmland, likely will continue to develop, and BIO will continue to provide forums such as the conference.

"We're going to do it again," he said.