This week I’ve been working on editing a roundtable discussion we held at this year’s JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. The article is about how small biotech companies establish their valuations and market caps. But what I, like so many people, have been thinking about most is the weather. Whether or not we helped cause it, this winter’s extreme weather has united us in a way political unions cannot.
A week ago, all local airports and most roads in my part of Oregon were simply closed for several days. First, the weekend began after snow started to fall on Thursday and never ceased until late the next day, accumulating to more than a foot. Then Saturday brought ice and freezing rain. I was scheduled to fly out Sunday morning on my way to New York for the BIO CEO & Investor conference. But Saturday afternoon I heard from the airline: flight cancelled; rebooked for Monday.
The delay would have cost me an entire day at the event, with the remaining day sandwiched between two days of cross-country travel. So I scuttled the trip, knowing my colleague and Chief Editor Rob Wright would probably make it to the city from his home on the Lake Erie shores. And sure enough, while Rob juggled his own priorities, he went the extra mile to touch base with many of the companies I wanted to see at BIO CEO. Rob also did a nice summary of his time at the event in his Editor’s blog, “Don't Mistake BIO CEO For J.P. Morgan,”.
Unlike most of my career — though I can’t remember the last time weather kept me home from a business trip — this time I had a recourse: Twitter. I kept vigil on all the tweets posted to #BIOCEO14, and thus, gathered a surprising amount of information and impressions from the meeting. In some ways, the networking inside the hashtag group was more varied and useful than the typical reception or hallway exchanges you might experience in any conference. Photos, links to presentations and reports, and sometimes extended conversations on Twitter create a dimension beyond the simple business card exchange. I have written about Twitter and conferencing before, but only as an adjunct, not as an alternative to attending the event.
Don’t get me wrong — there is no substitute for face-to-face human contact, and I would have much rather been there than not. Yet I was also astonished at how well a social medium can fill the void when direct contact is denied. Twitter is indeed a technology, but as a product of the human brain, it arises from nature the same as the rain, snow, and wind. Like the weather, it is also a force to be reckoned with. It can divide or unite us, depending largely on our own perceptions of and reactions to it.
One of the first things I noticed upon joining Twitter last year was the unconstrained vehemence of so many posts and exchanges. In the life sciences, the most contentious communications occur in the second-by-second, play-by-play dialog between the sell-side and the buy-side. Sell-siders generally denigrate small companies and amplify their every defect. Buy-siders tend to trumpet even the smallest triumphs even as they profess a long-term view. That is my cynical side talking, but I’m making a point about the extremes. There is also a third group I haven’t figured out yet: the people who watch the stocks in real time but deny any bias toward the buy or sell sides. This group often sees the life sciences as a landscape of heroes and villains. They cheer on some companies through every struggle and heap disdain on others as sinister hypesters. Sometimes, even often, I think they may be right.
And then there’s Adam Feuerstein…need I say more?
The various sides and sideliners of buy and sell carried on with the commentary in and around the BIO CEO & Investor conference. You could see it in the tweets. As speakers presented their companies, cheerleaders and cynics alike got all the equal time they wanted, in real time, while the session proceeded. If the speaker said something or presented a piece of data someone disbelieved, the objection was tweeted immediately, often followed by the counter argument and so on — a conversation happening in the audience and even on-stage as an added dimension to the event itself.
I had registered for the conference with a primary goal: taking advantage of its large assortment of cancer immunology companies to supplement a current project I’m doing on that topic. In addition to Rob’s coverage, Twitter supplied much more information on those company pitches than I had expected, along with the running commentary of audience and participants. Of course, I could have had my cake and eaten it, too; in the room or stuck at home, Twitter is equally available. As long as you don’t bury your nose in your phone and never look up, it can sharpen your vision and deepen your experience of the live meeting. And, although no social medium can overcome the weather, in this case, one did at least partly salvage a lost trip by delivering some of the experience to me in my snow-bound home.
The weather, though oblivious to all human affairs, proved benign in New York during the two-day conference. Of course, it was just the quiet between storms, and as I sit here writing at the end of the week the event took place, the entire East Coast is getting hit again, looking a lot like Oregon did a few days ago, covered in high-piled snow or frozen rainfall. We, the United States of America, the land of the red, white, and blue, are now but huddled masses under a cold, continental-wide, blanket of white — aside from those of us still sunning nervously in the grip of drought, of course. Oh right, that was San Francisco in January. Even in the extremes of weather, we find ways to gather together.