Make History. That was the theme of this year’s BIO International Convention and Conference in Boston (June 4 – 7). It has been my experience that sometimes such bold conference themes often don’t live up to expectations. But such was not the case for BIO, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in grand style. One of the goals for BIO at this year’s meeting was to set a world record for hosting the world’s largest business partnering event. According to Joanne Duncan, BIO’s president of membership and business operations, in its history the organization has hosted more than 350,000 partnering meetings, most made possible via its BIO One-On-One Partnering System. Over the four days of this year’s convention, BIO facilitated 46,916 one-on-one meetings. As a result, the organization did make history and set an official Guinness Book world record! But BIO made other history as well. This year’s convention drew 18,289 attendees hailing from 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 67 countries. This is the most attendees in the convention’s last 10 years. And while the convention did succeed in making history through the successful facilitation of many “planned” business partnering meetings, it is some of the spontaneous personal interactions that make BIO an annual event I seem to always enjoy attending.
There Is More To Paul Stoffels Than Most Realize
Many know Paul Stoffels, M.D., as the EVP and chief scientific officer for J&J, a company he joined in 2002 following the acquisition of Virco and Tibotec, where he had served as the CEO and chairman respectively. But before joining the biopharmaceutical industry, Stoffels worked as a physician in Africa where he focused on HIV and tropical diseases research. I would imagine him to be proud of all of his industry and medical accomplishments, some of which have been showcased in various industry publications including Life Science Leader. But there is something you might not have known about Stoffels, which was revealed during his BIO fireside chat with John Carroll, editor-in-chief of Endpoints News. About 30 minutes into the conversation, Carroll began asking Stoffels some more personal questions, such as what motivates him, proudest achievements, his approach to teamwork, and so on. When asked what he looks for when recruiting people, Stoffels replied, “Vision and teamwork.” Carroll pressed, asking how he assesses people for those attributes. Stoffels noted there is not a checklist. Not letting him off the hook, Carroll asked if it is more about instinct adding, “What are we talking about?” Stoffels replied, “Instinct, but also risk taking.” Carroll, seemingly still not satisfied, pressed further. “So is it track record that you look at?” “A combination of track record, but sometimes what hobbies people do,” Stoffels explained. “What are your hobbies?” Carroll quickly inquired. “My hobbies? This will probably surprise most people, but I’m a classical organist,” the executive revealed somewhat shyly. Turns out Stoffels played the organ in church nearly every Sunday for roughly 25 years, though he clarifies he doesn’t do it anymore.
Following the conclusion of the fireside chat, which I would rate as the best I have ever seen (at any conference), I went up to Stoffels and introduced myself, as well as the student who was shadowing me for a day, Miriam Massaad (whose BIO experience you can read about here). I mentioned that he probably didn’t envision discussing one of his hobbies during this fireside chat. But he proceeded to share some additional information about his hobby, such as how he is now serving as an organist mentor. In addition, he told me about a website in which he has some level of involvement, organroxx, noting it has around 150,000 members. Now I would have imagined a scientist of Stoffels’ caliber to have likely served as a mentor to numerous industry scientists and business people, but I admit to being pleasantly surprised at learning of his involvement in mentoring organists. But should I have been? Probably not, for it has been my experience that many of our industry’s real leaders are involved in so much more beyond the walls of their own companies or the boards on which they serve. It would be refreshing if more biopharmaceutical executives would share a bit more freely about their personal lives and hobbies. Perhaps demonstrating a bit more humanness is just what the doctor ordered for beginning to fix biopharma’s battered and broken public image.
Business Is Personal — Especially In Biopharma
There are plenty of recaps of BIO 2018 that you can find on the internet. So instead, I’d like to share some of the more personal interactions that I experienced from attending this year’s show.
From my experience, one of the best places to network is during lunch on the show floor. After picking up a lunch, I find a table and strike up a conversation with those joing me to eat. One of the people I met this year was Gaye Bok. We talked about leadership diversity and other subjects, and eventually exchanged business cards. On hers she is listed as being in business development for Orionis Biosciences. The company is a startup specializing in the development of new drugs for the treatment of certain autoimmune diseases and pathologies linked to certain types of cancer. The company raised € 5 million in 2016 thanks to a consortium of international investors, which just so happens to be led by Excel Venture Management, of which Bok is a venture partner.
Another interesting BIO lunch conversation took place with Dr. Andreas Orfanos, CEO of Innovacor and director of the Montreal Health Innovations Coordinating Center (MHICC), a division of the Montreal Heart Institute. MHICC came into being when a handful of professionals from varied disciplines joined forces on a cardiology research project. The resulting infrastructure and expertise became the backbone for the present day CRO, which now offers an extended range of clinical research services to academic and biopharmaceutical company researchers. But it was what Dr. Orfanos shared about himself that I found truly fascinating. Early in his career, Orfanos says he committed to buying and reading one book a month, even when he didn’t have very much money. He commented that he was recently looking at the bookcase that now houses hundreds of books, and noted how he could see how his interests evolved throughout his life just by studying the titles of the books that he was reading at the time.
The BIO hotel shuttles are another place that provide for fruitful networking, especially at the end of the day. I had a fascinating conversation with Chip MacDonald, head of sales and marketing at FKS Health. While I learned a bit about the company’s FKScope, a video-assisted endotracheal intubation device, I also learned about his ability to overcome adversity. You see Macdonald’s wife died from breast cancer when she was only in her 30s. Macdonald moved from the East to the West Coast and raised his children (ranging in age from 9 to 20 months) as a single father.
Another person I met during an evening shuttle ride was Ulrika Mårtensson, Ph.D., senior business development manager for materials and life sciences at Invest in Skåne (the official regional business promotion agency for southern Sweden). Prior to joining this organization, Mårtensson spent 11 years working for Zealand Pharma, starting out as a scientist project manager. I asked if she missed working at the bench, and she said not at all. Like many scientists who migrate into business development roles (e.g., George Golumbeski, Ph.D., former SVP of BD at Celgene), Mårtensson says she likes the constantly evolving dynamic offered in her BD role, although she admits to having a tremendous admiration for those scientists who can devote decades to try to solve a challenging scientific problem.
BIO 2018 Facilitates Fruitful Interactions
On the last day of BIO I had a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled with John Novack (communications director at Inspire) at the Westin that adjoins the Boston Convention Center. Fortunately, I arrived early, affording me the opportunity to meet Nadia Bodkin, Pharm D., EVP of MaxifyLife, who was meeting with Novack. Bodkin proceeded to tell me about her personal rare disease experience, as well as her successful efforts of finding a solution that saved her life. She is now in the process of trying to develop the compound for clinical trials and someday (fingers crossed), perhaps commercial approval. It was at this point that I see Martin Lehr, CEO of Context Therapeutics, walking by. I grab his attention and invite him to take just a few minutes to hear Bodkin’s story, which she graciously recounts with a bit more detail. Lehr, one of biopharma’s “super connectors,” pulls out his phone and says, “I think I know some people who can help you.” Continuing to listening to Bodkin, Lehr makes at least two email introductions to people he believes be well-aligned therapeutically with what she is attempting to do. Looking up he concludes with, “I just sent you a LinkedIn request to connect.” It only took a few minutes of his time to listen deeply, but it is my hope that it is those few minutes that will make all the difference.
Up until this meeting at BIO, I had what many would describe as a fairly productive week. I had attended (and tweeted about) many BIO educational sessions as well as moderated a session on how to broker biopharma strategic alliances and partnerships between international stakeholders. I mentored a Boston University biomedical engineering student, helping to introduce her to the business side of our industry and a number of KOLs. I hosted three Buzz Center interviews and networked broadly. But it was this last personal interaction at BIO where I felt as if I may have truly made a difference. To those who say, “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” I reply, “Successfully doing business in biopharma is personal.” I believe that if you take/make the time to listen and learn about people, their hobbies, and their life experiences, the more likely you will be able to successfully communicate when it comes to wanting to transact business. For me, BIO always has been excellent at facilitating both the business and the personal. You just have to be willing to engage in a slightly deeper conversation.