By Karen Pihl-Carey
BOSTON - After almost a week in Boston, Carl Feldbaum leaned back in a hotel sofa and smiled over a successful BIO 2000 conference. Not only did the event slip by with little trouble from protesters, not only was it packed with inspirational speeches and commentary from people like actor Christopher Reeve, but attendance far exceeded the expectations of Feldbaum or any person on his staff.
The number: 10,268 registrants.
"That is quite a spectacular turnout," said Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "We had hoped for 7,000. We had 5,700 in Seattle [last year], which was a record."
BIO 2000 wrapped up on Thursday with a closing luncheon in which actor David Lander, best known for his role as Squiggy on the television show Laverne & Shirley, spoke on his experiences living and working with multiple sclerosis. By that time, all of the 750 exhibitors had cleared the exhibition hall and most registrants already had checked out of their hotels.
The number of registrants for the conference was quadruple the number of protesters that began demonstrating outside the Hynes Convention Center last Friday. While about 2,500 of them protested over the weekend, with some carrying signs deriding "Biotechnology Merchants of Death," most had disappeared by Monday. The demonstrations mostly were peaceful, but Feldbaum said a few protesters attempted to infiltrate the conference and disrupt it. Boston authorities kept things under control, he said.
The demonstrations, in fact, were more peaceful than Feldbaum himself expected, considering local Boston television stations, attempting a comparison, aired coverage of earlier protester riots at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in the week before the conference.
The attention possibly contributed to boosting BIO 2000's attendance, surprising BIO staff with an onslaught of 2,000 unexpected on-site registrations on Monday morning. The line backed up for hours and several hundred people were turned away from the day's luncheon, where Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) spoke.
Other reasons for the high attendance could be the sheer prominence of the industry, Feldbaum said. With 22 new drugs approved by the FDA in 1999 and about 350 in Phase II or Phase III clinical trials, more people are taking notice. Investors of Internet stocks have changed gears and are now focusing on biotech companies. "Like it or not, we are on center stage," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today.
More reporters turned out for the conference in Boston than the number that turned out for the conference in New York two years ago. Out of 160 reporters, Feldbaum estimates he talked to 100 of them. Of that 100, about 70 had never covered a biotech story, he said. Reporters from major networks took Feldbaum aside before the interview, telling him they did not want to be embarassed, and asked for a quick overview of what biotechnology is. "That attention is going to continue," Feldbaum said. "We're going to be on the front page of every newspaper."
Definite highlights of the conference, Feldbaum said, were the sessions on genomics, in which hundreds of people failed to get seats, watching instead a televised wall display in the hall. Also, Christopher Reeve's speech reminded many industry officials why they do what they do, Feldbaum said.
"Christopher Reeve's appearance and speech was quite astonishing and dramatic and absolutely pertinent to what we do," Feldbaum said. "It was a brilliant talk."
Already, Feldbaum has met with officials from San Diego who will host the BIO 2001 conference in June of next year. Representatives from Toronto, which will host the conference in 2002, also met with him here. There is quite a competition to top the previous year's conference, he said.