When I leave my writer’s lair and go out into the world, I feel like the tortoise in a race of hares. People move around me at the speed of light, most lost in their screens, smiling at machines. Occasionally, without looking away, someone may lift an eyebrow and speak to a living soul nearby, but only with a stiff deference reserved for unwanted distractions. There is actually no way to speak to anyone without interrupting this intimate, human-device relationship. Yes, I have a smartphone. Yes, I check my email at appropriate intervals and make or take calls. At times, I shoot a photo or look up a factoid on line. Then I put the damn thing away. And watch the world.
Two events drew me out of the lair in the past month: a daytrip to Seattle for an immuno-oncology seminar by Xconomy at Fred Hutch; and BIO – that’s the Biotechnology Innovation Association International Convention, in San Diego this year. Thanks to another example of the extraordinary challenge of merely traveling from one place to another on the U.S. West Coast, I arrived at the convention one day late. But I left three days later once again stimulated by the personal interactions, enlightened by new information, and thoroughly exercised from head to toe — most assuredly, toe — walking the long, long halls of the SD convention center.
Chief Editor Rob Wright likes to write his post-conference blogs on the red-eye home, and he put up an excellent post summarizing the BIO sessions in his latest blog, Did You See Any Breakthroughs At BIO?. Rob played a key role at this year’s convention in creating and moderating sessions as well.
So what does that leave for me to say about the convention? More general thoughts, perhaps, but inescapable wherever I went, and tied to specific situations facing companies and people in this industry. Did I see any breakthroughs at BIO? Perhaps a broad one, pertaining to anyone working in the industry yet living among the “public” who supposedly revile it — something like, “We have met our critics, and they are us.”
By the way, you may have noticed the word industry no longer appears in BIO’s full name as it did for many years; the word innovation took its place a year and a half ago. Partly, the reason for the change may be the overarching fact that BIO represents not one but three industries: biopharma, bio-agriculture, and industrial bio. Yet it is the smallest of those sectors in commercial terms that BIO most often places front and center. A few sessions in the conference reflect the tri-industry mission, but most focus on biopharma, which is arguably the public face of BIO though it is small potatoes as a business next to the other two.
This is not a random reference; the composition of BIO makes it a more complex and less centralized organization than its older counterpart, PhRMA. The most visible evidence is this convention itself, where the exhibition reveals the full range of biotech companies, sectors, and suppliers. But the prominence of biopharma in the organization’s public interface may just be based on the recognition that what people most love to hate, they love the most. I believe at least one effect follows from BIO’s platform: the job of chair, ably and often bravely filled by Acorda’s CEO Ron Cohen for the last two years, becomes at once more public and perhaps more obviously consequential. Cohen’s successor, John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam, will need all of his well-known charm and more to carry on as BIO’s chief diplomat in our current iconoclastic political world.
Suddenly, as I top the escalator, I am facing Ron Cohen, extending his hand and saying, “Hi, Wayne!” Okay, it is early; I need coffee. I blurt out a vague memory of something nice I’d read about Ron on Twitter, though I discover later what I’d seen was really a tweet by him complementing a Matt Herper article in Forbes. My remark seems to short-circuit our brief greeting, so I now publically apologize to him for my absent-minded professor-ism. During the next few days, I hear many good things said about Ron, but I’m sure he would not want to dwell on them. In my mind, though, his best moments are when he probably feels most frustrated — seeing without filters the intractable debate between the entrenched stakeholders over drug pricing. Wait, did I see that on Twitter?
Going down the escalator later, I spot an enormous sign sponsored by a venerable pharma company near the exhibition doors, saying something like, “Visualize a world without disease.” My background wise-guy cynical mind immediately chimes in, answering the company, “That could be a world without you!” But this is medicine, where everyone knows cures are rare, and our war with disease will be never-ending. Or will it? Perhaps one day we will pay the biopharma industry just to keep disease at bay, and all drugs will be preventative. Or will we all be replaced by robots by then? I forget.
But I believe the answer in every case is, “It depends.” It depends on how well we maintain our systems of progress and innovation. It depends on whether healthcare becomes universal or a luxury only the wealthiest class can afford. Oh, and the robot thing? It depends on our level of fondness for human existence versus our attraction and access to technology.
Once more, my mind feels a sudden pull as I hear a speaker quoting a common description of the biopharma industry as greedy and corrupt. Get me — I am often critical enough of the industry in specific ways to raise eyebrows among the faithful, but I stop at painting the entire sector with such a large and sloppy brush. If there is greed in biopharma, it is the same generic greed inhabiting industries generally — manifest mainly in the departments dealing only with numbers. Ninety-nine percent of the industry people I know, at least, never appear to be motivated by lust for money or power. They are typically grateful to be working and relatively prosperous, but their most valued goals are obviously professional and humane. Their lives have a purpose beyond material wealth and pleasure.
Oops, there goes my phone’s calendar — another interview in 15 minutes. Good thing I already know something about the company from searching online. In the few days here, I will meet with five company CEOs and the heads of a regional bio-hub delegation. From those conversations alone, I will learn about whole new approaches to tissue regeneration and wound healing, mitochondria and inflammation, misfolded proteins and neurodegeneration, immunity and infection, and orphan blood factors and fractionation. My head is spinning happily with all of the new information, which will take me months to transform into something more like knowledge on the printed page.
Oh, and I’ll get to you in a minute — just as soon as I can pry myself away from this damn screen.