By Randall Osborne

Would-be investors, listening for clues amid the cacophony of claims by biotechnology companies, often come away from conferences more confused than when they walked in the door.

Typically, presentations are offered company by company, each touting its products and technology under development. Investors are left to sort out - through cross-referencing of their notes and by memory - which cancer drug, arthritis treatment or other compound or technology might be the best bet.

"They get bombarded with information," said Morrie Ruffin, vice president for emerging companies at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "We know that."

BIO hopes to fix the problem with a new approach in its first BIO CEO & Investor Conference, slated for Feb. 24-26 in New York.

Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, said the conference is "organized around the mindset of our audience. And the altered formula of this conference will attract people in ways we haven't seen before."

Next year's BIO conference has organized its sessions according to disease indications and technologies. Each session, about two hours long, will include four or five companies, Ruffin said. Each firm will provide a brief introduction, with the rest of the session taken up by questions to the companies from a clinician, an analyst and a representative from the pharmaceutical industry.

"It's not going to be just companies standing up and giving their road shows," Ruffin said. "It will be interactive. The idea is to compare and contrast."

Session topics include cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular therapeutics, infectious diseases, gene therapy, vaccines, pharmacogenomics, drug delivery and agricultural biotech.

"What we're trying to do is give investors a window on the industry that is unique," Ruffin said. "If you only have four or five companies, you're not going to get everybody, but it should give them an idea. We intend for this to be an annual event."

A selection committee will determine which companies are included in each session. The deadline for firms applying to participate is Dec. 22.

Ruffin said investment banks, which already are sponsoring conferences, have proven enthusiastic about the new event.

"We believe the industry itself should be involved in providing a forum, and not just the banks," he said, although the banks' help is important. "Our concern going into this was that the banks would say, 'There's too many of these things already. Why do another one?'"

Sponsors include Hambrecht & Quist LLC; ING Baring Furman Selz LLC; Lehman Brothers; Punk, Ziegel and Co.; and Warburg Dillon Read. Hambrecht & Quist is in San Francisco; the others are all of New York.

Feldbaum said BIO's members welcomed the idea, too.

"Our membership said there are not enough [conferences] of the right kind," Feldbaum said. "This is a command performance, a grassroots-up development."

The approach - comparing products, technologies and approaches (rather than companies) - might seem obvious, but represents a new paradigm, brought about largely by economic adversities facing the industry, Feldbaum said.

"What could have been obvious, but wasn't and isn't in good times, is that the biotech portion is a relative sliver of the investment community, which feels itself not well-enough informed to plunge into the biotech sector," Feldbaum said.

Marcia Kean, of Feinstein Kean Partners Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., a partner with BIO in organizing the conference, said the concept has not been tried, and represents a fresh strategy for luring investors in a tight money market.

"The only conferences I've seen that are comparable basically spent one day on one subject," Kean said. "There's been a traditional, narrow set of investors, and a pretty traditional format for the conferences. This is trying to break away on both counts. The industry is big enough and mature enough that we can attract a whole new segment." *