The MedTech Investing Conference held each May in Minneapolis is one of the more interesting investor-focused gatherings on the calendar. It always earns accolades from attendees as representing one of the best opportunities to bring together venture capitalists, entrepreneur/innovators and corporate development types, the latter of whom are always happy to spread the message that they’re open for business.
Held for the 12th year earlier this month, the conference offered quite the reminder of the range of emotions being felt these days by those involved with or interested in med-tech.
During his welcoming comments, conference co-chairman Kevin Wasserstein, founder and principal of MentorCatalyst (Menlo Park, California), asked for a show of hands by those in the audience who thought the med-tech industry was in better shape than was true a year earlier, only three raised their hands. Most said they thought things were about the same, while only a handful said they thought things were worse.
Wasserstein, while taken a little aback by the count-on-one-hand number of “better” responses, said that lack of optimism to date was more than offset by the fact that the annual gathering had attracted what already was a standing-room-only ballroom full of attendees.
“Med-tech is alive and well,” he said. “That sentiment is clearly expressed by the size of this crowd,” totaling about 350 participants for this year’s version of an annual gathering presented by regional trade group LifeScience Alley (St. Louis Park, Minnesota) and conference production firm International Business Forum (IBF; Jericho, New York).
And from what I saw and heard during the jam-packed agenda of a one-day (one really long day!) conference, Wasserstein was spot-on. Attendees were highly interesting in a series of thought-provoking panels that ranged from the meat-and-potatoes sessions on how – and where – to generate investor dollars to a group of payers and providers talking about how they make coverage decisions for new technology.
Even an early-in-the-morning breakout session containing some very interesting commentary on what to look for in finding the right talent fit for a start-up device company, drew a roomful of attentive conference-goers who joined in on the lively discussion and took the time before and after the program to loosen up their networking chops.
Overall, I’d say the mood was one of something on the plus side of cautious optimism. Those in attendance clearly think the future for med-tech, while distinctly challenging and certainly changed from the growth-on-top-of-growth days that prevailed up until 2007 or so, is positive. It’s really a matter of recognizing, then accepting and then finally embracing the new realities.
To focus on two of the most important categories, those realities are that 1) cost-cutting is in full bloom, and device manufacturers definitely must be part of the solution, and 2) the falloff in venture funding isn’t temporary, so those organizing start-ups have to identify other ways to finance their early efforts, some of which eventually will come their way from the voracious corporate investors/acquirers who are trolling the med-tech waters for new technologies.
Wasserstein was a stage-setter for the new reality, referring to a set of oversized Chinese characters shown on large screens in the ballroom. The characters represented the words “danger” and “opportunity.” He said that medical innovation “also is alive and well. What we investors need to do is focus on how we can bring that innovation to market. Huge, unmet clinical needs,” remain, he said, with consumer-driven healthcare expected to presage even more opportunity for new technologies.
As was demonstrated by a heavily attended session that featured FDA honcho Dr. Jeffrey Shuren appearing electronically from his office in suburban Washington, the longtime angst-ridden relationship between the agency and the med-tech community seems to either be thawing or already has completely shed its coating of ice. As Wasserstein put it: “There are signs of intelligent life at FDA, with 26 original PMAs winning approval over the past 12 months.”
All of which adds up to a feeling that med-tech is on the verge of being back in business, albeit in a distinctly different form that earlier in the current century.