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BIO Bacchanalia in Boston

A record 22,000 gathered to celebrate biotech–an industry that is still bleeding billions of dollars a year.

I just attended my seventh annual Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention in Boston, and it was another Alice-beyond-the-looking-glass extravaganza. This year, the crowd was 15 percent larger than the 18,000 people who assembled in Chicago last year to party and talk about all the fabulous things biotech is doing for the world.

This year, BIO head Jim Greenwood, the former congressman from Pennsylvania, described the Boston gathering as perhaps even more committed than those of previous years to what he called a single-minded effort to cure disease and ease the suffering of the ill. “I wake up in the morning feeling great because I’m working for this industry that is focused on such a noble effort,” Greenwood told me.

Undoubtedly, many people were in Boston this week to alleviate sickness and suffering. For others, I’m guessing that making money was also important. So was promoting the 48 states and dozens of countries whose marketing armies formed the vast majority of participants, easily overwhelming scientists and business executives. In a carnival of color and giant banners and free Pen Lites, I wandered past pavilions from Alabama to Belarus that covered several football fields of space on the floor of the Boston Convention Center.

Each pavilion in this bio-United Nations hawked its Biotech Gulch or Biopolis as the next great center of the global bio-industry, giving away rubber-brain paperweights and raffling off iPods and even a Harley-Davidson hog.

During the day, the marketing armies talked about partnering opportunities between Bangladesh and Oregon. Smaller crowds attended self-serving panels on finance, global health, and other topics paid for by industry sponsors who also chose the speakers–who tended to be their clients. Keynotes this year were delivered by Michael J. Fox, who, not surprisingly, pushed for more research for diseases such as Parkinson’s, from which he tragically suffers. The other major keynote was Queen Noor of Jordan, who talked about global health–a creative choice, given the entire universe of scientific and business superstars that BIO might have selected.

This meeting, which everyone calls simply BIO, has yet to reach the proportions of epic IT meetings of yore, with their teeming tens of thousands, but they’re trying. And the parties are more fun than they used to be. The gala this year was in a vast, darkened room inside the Seaport World Trade Center. It featured extravagant spreads of food and drink from around the world, and ethnic dancers and costumed performers mingled with the crowd. The closing party was at Jillian’s Boston Entertainment Universe and Lucky Strike, next to Fenway Park, a three-floor mega-sports bar with bowling alleys and endless pool tables. Food and drink was plentiful and free.

All of this is fine, except that since I started attending BIO in 2000, this industry has lost upwards of $30 billion. Last year was typical, with industry-wide losses totaling $5.6 billion, according to Ernst and Young. Take away the five most profitable companies–Amgen, Genentech, and their ilk–and the losses are much higher. This is despite an industry that is almost 40 years old.

This is the Alice in Bioland part: an industry losing money almost every year since it began in 1973, while claiming a noble cause, annually stages this massive bacchanalia. Don’t get me wrong. I love to sip Coronas and eat heaps of chicken wings as much as anyone else, but the party aspect of the industry’s signature event seems inappropriate to me–a celebration of something that hasn’t yet happened and that is costing a bundle.

For those of you who have read my work over the years, you know that I have visited this theme before. To avoid completely repeating myself, please read the piece I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle when I was writing my “Biotech and Creativity” column for the paper. The column describes the 2004 BIO meeting in San Francisco, but much of what I report about at that smaller but equally lush gathering remains true today.

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