We've been here before.

The BIO 1994 International Biotechnology Convention and Exhibition was held in Toronto, three years before the world was introduced to a cloned sheep named Dolly, back when biotechnology was still stretching its legs.

The convention that year drew 2,000 attendees.

In the past eight years, the industry has grown on those coltish legs to the global presence it is today. It is fitting, then, that the convention has grown with it, mirroring the swelling of the industry with an annual expansion of its own. By 1997 more than 3,100 people attended the conference. In 2000, that number had more than tripled to 10,000-plus. This year, the convention has pre-registered a record 12,000 attendees and the exhibit hall is 40 percent larger than the one that housed the event last year in San Diego.

And it's still not large enough.

"The exhibit hall has been sold out since December," BIO President Carl Feldbaum told BioWorld Today. "We have 1,028 companies and institutions exhibiting. We have a long waiting list - more than 70 companies will get some preference next year."

The theme of the convention this year is "Life Advances." Feldbaum said it "reflects the real progress" made by the biotech industry.

"It's all about life; it's all about quality of life," Feldbaum said. "We felt that those two words were appropriate and said a lot."

The unofficial theme might be the global growth of biotechnology. Consider this: The convention is being held off U.S. soil; Australia will have the third-largest contingency there, with more than 60 companies exhibiting; and media representatives have been bombarded with offers to speak with CEOs from around the globe. At BIO this year, as Feldbaum put it, "there are a lot more international aspects going on."

There are sessions titled The European Union's Strategic Vision on Biotechnology; Emerging Baltic Biotechnology: Opportunities and Strategies; How Do You Build a Global Biotech Company?; Life Science Biotechnology in Cuba; and Biotechnology in the Asia Pacific. Feldbaum himself will be speaking on a global issue today.

"[Biotechnology] has grown up enough to have a foreign policy," Feldbaum said. "The issue needs some overarching principles." In his speech, Feldbaum will propose 10 points advocating just that.

Biotechnology, especially with its simmering caldron of stem cell issues, has come under fire in the past. BIO has listened. The convention includes sessions on biotechnology policy and ethical issues, and this year there are religious leaders on various panels, Feldbaum said. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, is scheduled as a keynote speaker, discussing the views of the faithful on issues that still divide science and religion.

Perhaps the only thing that has not grown with the industry has been protestor activity. On the decline in recent years, protesters at BIO 2001 were sparse and mostly peaceful. The early word is to expect similar activity this year.

"We've seen some Internet traffic [between protesters], but at a much lower level than last year," Feldbaum said.

Regardless of the amount or mood of protesters, an uneasy global climate has made security an essential issue. But the matter is in hand, Feldbaum said, although the security at BIO 2002, which includes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, will mainly be "not visible, but behind the scenes."

"It will be more than adequate," he said. "Not surprisingly, in the past couple of years, we've spent considerable time working [on security]. We want to make sure all our registrants are safe, secure and happy. We've gone to great lengths to make sure that what needs to be done is done."

So here we are. Back in Toronto for a bigger, better biotechnology convention.

"It looks like it might be the largest ever, and hopefully the best ever," Feldbaum said. "I think, this year, we concentrated more on quality. The quantity seems to take care of itself. If you build it right, they will come."

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