An event entering its tenth-year next fall, the CNS Summit may be a conference you haven’t heard of, and you would not be alone. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that it appeared on my radar. During end-of-year calls with members of the Life Science Leader editorial advisory board, I asked each for a short list of can’t-miss shows in the coming year. The usual suspects (i.e., ASCO, BIO, and JPM) were mentioned, with several bringing up the CNS Summit. “Is it focused only on CNS?” Yes and no they’d reply. Confused? Me too. Yes, because CNS, at least for this summit stands for collaborating for novel solutions. No, because CNS, which is typically associated with the central nervous system, is not the event’s only therapeutic area of focus. The consensus by the board members was it is really something you have to experience to understand. And after having now experienced it, I have to agree with their assessment. The CNS Summit is likely the best conference I have ever experienced, which is certainly saying something! Because after speaking with editorial advisory board members about the summit, I went in with very high expectations, which were surprisingly exceeded.
What Makes The CNS Summit Stand Out?
One of the first things I noticed that differentiated this event from others I’ve attended was the level of audience engagement during presentations. This was abundantly clear at a panel on women in leadership. As you would expect, the panel consisted mostly of females who work in the biopharma industry, but it also included two publication cofounders, Taren Grom of PharmaVOICE, and Jane Metcalfe, the former president and cofounder of Wired who recently launched NEO.LIFE, an online publication focused on capturing the stories and ideas driving the Neobiological Revolution. Although tangentially related to the industry, their differing business backgrounds added another perspective to the discussion.
But there also was a male panelist, Charles Wilcox, Ph.D., executive director from the Pharmacology Research Institute. I found his inclusion especially refreshing because in similar such panels I’ve seen at other events men are either excluded from attending or not included as a panel participant. While including men as attendees is important to bring broader awareness to the diversity problem we face, having at least one male participant (on this type of panel) encourages men to be part of the solution. In fact, there were quite a few men in the audience for this presentation, and many of them were willing to share their experiences gained from a positive female mentor.
Overall, I found the level of engagement and audience participation for this panel to be unprecedented. And had I only observed it in this one session, I might have thought it an anomaly. But in every educational session I attended I saw the same thing which made me conclude that the event’s organizers had taken a proactive approach to managing the culture of this event — something I had never thought about when attending a conference.
Speakers Beyond Biopharma’s Traditional Borders
The speakers were another differentiator. Yes, there were plenty of those from traditional biopharma companies such as Merck, Novartis, and Otsuka, but there also were a number of presenters whom you would not have expected at this type of conference (e.g., Richie Etwaru, founder and CEO of Hu-manity.co; Kristin Milburn, head of health at Headspace, Mary Lou Jepsen, founder and CEO of Openwater; Nick Adkins, healthcare evangelist and founder of #PinkSocks; Katharina Sophia Volz, founder and CEO of OccamzRazor).
We heard from Pam Dillon, cofounder and CEO of RingIT, which created Wine Ring, a smartphone app that uses patented algorithms to develop a wine preference profile for the user. In other words, Dillon is using AI to improve wine tasting.I was introduced to the concept of virtual caffeine, where a member of the CNS Summit team took to the stage and led the audience through a series of stretches accompanied by music. And while newbies might have initially been hesitant to take part, they quickly got on board and actually seemed to be having fun. Which was a bit of the point. Because if you have to be at a conference and spending time away from your family on the weekend, shouldn’t you have fun while doing so. And by involving a number of speakers talking about stuff seemingly unrelated to biopharma, you suddenly had folks being much more creative and engaging This is pretty hard to put into words, but I imagine there are others who upon leaving the CNS Summit feel like they are better human beings. There has been no other biopharmaceutical industry conference that has provided me with such a sensation, and to the conference curator, Dr. Amir Kalali I say, thank you.
Saving The Best For Last
The last point of differentiation that I noticed pertained to the fact that the conference organizers had saved — in my opinion — three of the best presentations for the final half day of the summit! For example, Sunday began with an inspiring leadership presentation by Daniel Friedland, M.D., founder and CEO of SuperSmartHealth and author of Leading Well From Within: A Neuroscience and Mindfulness-Based Framework for Conscious Leadership. He walked the audience through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (i.e., safety, love and belonging) and their relationship to achieving greater meaning and significance toward actualizing your full potential. As he shared the personal experience of his mother dying from cancer, tears welled in the eyes of many attendees. And when he concluded his talk, Friedland was met with a standing ovation.
Next came Chris Hadnagy, founder and CEO of Social Engineer, a consulting and training company specializing in the art and science of social engineering (SE) and how these tactics are often used to breach corporate digital security. You almost felt sorry for Hadnagy —how was he going to top what everyone just experienced via Friedland? But Hadnagy seemed unfazed. Using humor and remarkable storytelling skills, he walked the audience through, in great detail, how he went about hacking into a company’s computer system. Don’t be alarmed. The company whose computers he hacks hire him to attempt to do so. And upon his wrapping up, Hadnagy also was met with a standing ovation.
The final session involved Stephanie Paul, an actress and producer who now uses these skills to help executives become better presenters and speakers. Paul proceeded to walk the audience through a series of improv exercises to train attendees in listening, communication, and cooperation. And it worked. For example, when we wrapped up her session, I attempted to exchange business cards with another attendee. However, this person commented on how she doesn’t take business cards but would be happy to take a picture of my card, as she is of the opinion trees are better used for making oxygen than paper. As the chief editor of a print publication, I could have taken offense to such a position. But I found myself saying, “I can certainly appreciate your perspective. However, as the chief editor of a print publication, and data supporting that the readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention paper being recyclable, as well as a renewable resource.” And she responded in kind.
A Community Of Difference Makers
And as I departed and shook hands with those who also opted to stay for the last day, I felt welcomed, accepted, and a sensation of love and kindness. Other conferences contend they think outside of the box. Yet, for the CNS Summit, there is no box, and perhaps that is why it felt amazingly different. Because the CNS Summit isn’t a conference, but a community of people who not only want to make a difference — but make the world a better place — and that made a world of difference.