As usual, the BIO International 2017 Convention was a top-shelf event. This year’s show theme was, “breakthroughs.” And while I didn’t see a single breakthrough therapeutic take center stage at this year’s event, there were still a significant number of them worth noting. For example, in the first can’t-miss session listed in my pre-BIO blog, attendance nearly broke through the walls — literally. Not only was this session standing room only, it was the first time I experienced a non-keynote/non-super session have to utilize an overflow room so attendees could watch via live video. People often ask what will be the next breakthrough after the buzz wanes from immunotherapy. Based on attendance of this session, it seems the answer is neurodegenerative disease. Although neurodegenerative disease has only about 1/10 of the dollars invested in oncology R&D, there is certainly no lack of investment on the scientific-thinking front. For example, one of the most interesting questions came from the audience when an attendee asked the panel if scientists have been investigating combination therapies similar to what is being done in oncology for treating neurodegenerative diseases. Short answer, yes, but they are very early in the process.
Breakthroughs In Business Development
Another breakthrough of sorts occurred in the second BIO can’t-miss listed session — “Plays Well with Others: Lessons Learned from Decades in Biotech Business Development.” Apparently, prior to BIO 2017, it wasn’t widely known that a few years ago all of the panelists had been involved in a particular deal. For the first time ever, panelists shared insights gained from the experience.
At the time of the deal (i.e., 2013 – 2014), panelist Paul Sekhri, current president and CEO of Lycera, was an EVP at Teva. Fellow panelist Jeremy Levin, current CEO of Ovid Therapeutics, was then president and CEO of Teva. Sekhri noted that while he was at Teva the company was interested in making an acquisition. One of the companies Teva found interesting was Receptos, led at the time by fellow panelist Faheem Hasnain. Sekhri noted that Teva had a scientific committee, several members of which also served on the Teva board. According to Sekhri, these board members insisted on going with the Teva deal team to attend a company presentation. “This was the first time I had ever experienced something like that in my career,” he stated. “At one point [during the Receptos presentation] one of the scientific advisory board members leaned over to me and said, ‘If our board was any different, we’d do this [deal] in a second.’” Levin stated, “That’s perhaps a good moment to stop.” This is because he felt Sekhri had brought the audience to a very important moment in time, shedding light on where the board was “in its head” in executing/not executing the deal. “We had the deal for approximately 1/10 [the price] of what was ultimately paid,” Levin shared. Now admittedly, Receptos hadn’t yet opened its Phase 2 clinical trial data envelope, so there was risk to buying a company without that information. What if the information wasn’t positive? Fellow panelist, George Golumbeski, then SVP of business development at Celgene, was the eventual winner in this deal, as Celgene acquired Receptos for $7.2 billion. And while there are those who question if Golumbeski/Celgene paid too much of a premium for waiting to see the data, one has to wonder if the folks of Teva have any regrets for not pulling the trigger when Receptos could have been had for about $720 million.
Levin, who worked at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) prior to his position at Teva, told the story of his previous experience, noting that all of the information being shared could be found on Wikipedia. He explained how BMS went through an accounting scandal in 2002, which resulted in a significant restatement of revenue. Other lawsuits and scandals followed, and BMS soon found itself in the unique position of having to operate while being monitored by a federal judge, Frederick Lacey. According to Levin, BMS struggled to work under such scrutiny, as every time the board wanted to make a decision it had to gain the approval of Lacey. “The psychology of that company was that of a loser company,” Levin remarked. “In 2007 the world changes, and it changes because [then] CEO Jim Cornelius said we have two choices, fix it, or sell it.” Levin shared that part of the process of fixing BMS began by fixing the company’s psychological self. “We did a transaction, the first in about nine years, to buy Adnexus [for about $505 million],” he stated. It was this initial transaction that mobilized the company into becoming the biopharma it is today. “It was a pivotal moment for the board,” he added. According to Levin, that moment (i.e., buying Receptos), which could have been fundamentally transformative for Teva and changed the trajectory of the company, never happened.
Golumbeski added to Levin’s story by stressing the importance of having a positive mindset. In 2009, Celgene, back when it employed less than 2,000 people, got into an acquisition bidding war with a Big Pharma to acquire Gloucester Pharma. Golumbeski described this as a watershed moment for Celgene. “We won, which instilled us with a confidence that lasted for years. The organization got a mindset that we can do this and we can win, and the importance of that cannot be underestimated.”
A Breakthrough On Drug Pricing
Another breakthrough at BIO happened in my final can’t-miss session, “Our Common Goal: Ensuring Access and Affordability of Innovative Medicines.” The premise of this panel was to discuss the current challenge surrounding drug pricing. The diverse group was made up of CEOs from biopharma (i.e., Jeremy Levin, Ovid Therapeutics, and David Meeker, Sanofi Genzyme) and executives from the insurance side of the business (i.e., Steve Miller, SVP and CMO Express Scripts, and Jeff Berkowitz, former EVP of United Health Group/Optum). According to panel moderator, Ron Cohen, CEO of Acorda Therapeutics and immediate past chair of BIO, it was the first time biopharmaceutical and insurance company executives ever served on a panel (at least ones in which he was involved) where the primary outcome was achieved (i.e., both sides striving to work more collaboratively toward a solution). Cohen shared that prior sessions often involved a lot of finger pointing and the placement of blame by one constituency or the other as being responsible for the prominent drug-pricing problem.
Such was not the case during this session. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a big hugfest, but it certainly wasn’t a slugfest either. For example, during the session there was a bit of a breakthrough on the drug-pricing front when Miller talked about the challenge of determining how to pay for new therapies coming to market that aren’t replacing existing therapies. Take Spark Therapeutics for example. Back in May of this year, Spark submitted its experimental gene therapy for patients with rare inherited blindness to the FDA for approval. . Miller admitted this could be revolutionary. And while it might not provide total eyesight for pediatric patients who had zero sight previously, this treatment could provide enough independence that these children are able to successfully navigate a room. “What is that worth?” he asked the audience. As a parent with children, Miller said he could relate to how impactful such a treatment could be. But he also said there is no cost offset with this product, meaning, something does not currently exist that insurance companies are already paying for that it is replacing. As such, the cost of this new treatment (if approved) will be 100 percent additive and will challenge insurers to figure out how much it is worth — as well as how to pay for it. “Is it a million dollars per eye or two million for both eyes? What’s reasonable?” he asked. Miller believes there is tremendous value in such new technology and thinks what Spark is developing will get paid for. That being said, he also believes this situation needs to be handled carefully, perhaps similar to how Regeneron recently priced its new $37,000 severe eczema drug, Dupixent (dupilumab).
Public-Private Partnerships Breakthrough At BIO
A final breakthrough occurred with the “Navigating A Clear Path To Public-Private Partnerships.” This was the session in which I served as moderator. To me, the breakthrough was delivering content attendees found valuable. Now, usually when you are one of the last sessions on the last day of a long conference, you can expect light attendance. And while the room wasn’t standing-room-only, it was pretty full. So how did we deliver on providing content attendees found valuable? Well for starters, prior to the session, panel members walked around the room greeting attendees and asking what they were hoping to get out of attending this session. I heard one audience member comment , “I was just sitting here thinking, ‘I wish someone would ask me what I wanted to get out of a session,’ and here you are. Thanks for doing that.” Another person approached me following the session saying, “I’ve attended a lot of moderated panel sessions at BIO over the years – A LOT! This was the best session I have ever attended.” Following my return from BIO, I did send an email to this attendee to see if she could share specifics as to what she thought made it “the best ever” so we can share with future panels and presenters. Stay tuned.
Suffice it to say, the positive outcome achieved by this session wasn’t by accident, and the panel certainly didn’t show up and “wing it.” There was a lot of preparation, including three planning calls from which we developed questions to not only guide and spark conversation, but reveal insights we thought session attendees might be seeking. How did we know what attendees might want? Well, some of this was based on our previous experience as show speakers and moderators. But we also wrote a blog post back in May (see paragraph three) where we asked for additional input. We sent emails prior to those who registered interest in attending our session via the BIO messaging system and solicited additional input. We sent emails letting potential attendees know that we looked forward to meeting them in person. We sent emails asking for them to show up and to be actively engaged. We set an expectation that we would have an engaging discussion when we greeted some of the audience members individually prior to the talk, and we further reinforced this by setting the expectation during the introductory remarks. During the introduction we gave away a book, The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile (author of Life Science Leader’s June 2017 Leadership Lessons’ article) and Steven Kramer, to the first person to shout out a response to a question during the introduction. We had a fun fact to share about ourselves so audience members could hopefully feel more connected to us. We encouraged an exchange of business cards during the session, and we sought questions from the audience early, choosing to not have a 10-minute Q&A at the end. We didn’t ask for a question from the audience and then make the person stand uncomfortably at the microphone for 10 minutes while we finished a point. We directed traffic, meaning, I let the audience member know who would be next and asked if before I took the next question if I might ask another question to a panel member. Just prior to the session we reviewed the LinkedIn article, Why panels suck by Reid Hoffman, and had his key points top of mind as we went in to our session. It also served as a good motivator to make sure our BIO panel did not fall into the “suck” category. Finally, we had a PowerPoint closing slide (number five of five total slides) that listed the following additional resources for learning more about public-private partnerships:
This didn’t seem like anything really earth shattering or breakthrough to do for a panel session. But apparently (for at least one attendee anyway) it certainly was. In an email received following our session, a person wrote, “Thank you for an interesting discussion and for the links you provided. What a great idea to provide links for further study – this is the first time I’ve seen this at BIO.” To us — Stacey Adam, Chandra Ramanathan, Issi Rozen, and myself — it wasn’t rocket science. We merely applied some of the best business practices we use every day and geared these toward delivering value to BIO educational session attendees. For while it is important to have sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, keynotes, and all of the other necessary things to make a show happen, if you don’t have attendees getting value from a conference they choose to attend, you may soon no longer have a conference. Perhaps we will see you next year at BIO’s International Convention in Boston, June 4 – 7, 2018. And if you aspire to be a member of a can’t-miss breakthrough panel next year, you should already be in the early planning phases (i.e., thinking about the topic and lining up potential speakers and moderators). The call for sessions begins on September 14, 2017 and closes on October 12, 2017.
We look forward to seeing you next year.