Sitting in the Rocket Pharmaceuticals presentation during the 38th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM) in San Francisco (Jan. 13 – 16), I am struck by the approach taken by Gaurav Shah, M.D., the company’s CEO. Rather than the formulaic approach taken by most presenters of JPM (or its nearby counterpart The Biotech Showcase [BTS]), he began by welcoming the audience to the 2020s, and then proceeded to remind the audience of a previous decade — 1920 – 1929, the Roaring Twenties. It was a period of economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge that saw Jazz music blossom, Art Deco peak, and U.S. women not only secure the right to vote, but young ladies of the era spark the Flapper counterculture that flouted social norms. But Shah noted the important medical discoveries of the decade that forever changed human health — insulin and penicillin — and then posited that the decade we have entered will similarly be, “roaring with cures.” And given the number of JPM presentations I observed this year, I believe he will be proven correct. So, what else took place during the annual gathering most of us simply refer to as JPM? Plenty.
Optimism Abounds AT #JPM20 Despite Society’s Cynical Bent
To be sure, optimism was abundant at this year’s JPM. And while Jamie Dimon’s Monday luncheon keynote was specified as being “off-the-record,” I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how upbeat the chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. seemed regarding the U.S.’s current economy. Because while Dimon did discuss the cycle of economic slowdowns that happen from time to time, he most certainly was not painting a picture of doom and gloom that so many seem to crave. Perhaps this is why so many on various social media platforms had to find something to complain about for an event that has become both our industry’s annual kickoff and Superbowl. For just as negative news is known to help sell newspapers and grab viewers, negative tweets work much better as sensationalistic click bait. For example, there were plenty of tweets about there not being enough diversity (i.e., women) at JPM, patients being underrepresented, and the lack of M&A deals being announced. And of those three items, the only one I can possibly agree with was there being fewer M&A announcements this year when compared to those of some years previous. Because having attended JPM for a number of years, while still predominantly male (for those who see diversity and gender as binary constructs), there are significantly more women attending and presenting, and I expect this trend will continue. In fact, the Tuesday JPM keynote luncheon was 100 percent women! But ask yourself, how does having an all-female panel by default make it more diverse? Sure, it’s a refreshing change from “manels.” But just as manels can provide plenty of diversity (or lack thereof) regarding thought, so too can having the exact opposite.
As for the comments around the lack of patients being represented during JPM, these types of tweets demonstrate a total lack of understanding for what this annual event is. To be clear, this is an investor conference where 477 companies provide an in-person prospectus (many of which are also live streamed) to those fortunate enough to have been able to secure a pass, which is followed by a Q&A. But because this event draws all the movers and shakers of biopharma, we’ve seen the growth of nearby peripheral events seeking to capitalize on the opportunity. Thus, when you ask if someone is going to JPM, you aren’t just referring to the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, but everything life science oriented that is going on during that week in San Francisco. Patient-focused organizations are welcome to host an event in San Fran during JPM. And while I bet, they too would be able to capitalize on the talent JPM attracts toward filling their panels, they would also feel the financial pinch, probably much more severely than those (for now at least) that view their attendance as a cost of doing business in biopharma. This all being said, every JPM presentation at the Westin St. Francis that I have ever attended has patients well represented. There are often video montages of patients sharing their journey during company presentations, or photos, or the CEO telling a patient’s story, not to mention, that while everyone in the room is there doing their job, in the end we are all patients! So, I disagree that patients aren’t well represented during JPM. And just as it isn’t possible for any one person to attend every presentation taking place at the conference, it isn’t possible to attend all of the peripheral events taking place during JPM. However, while I admittedly did spend the bulk of my time within the walls of the Westin St. Francis, I also attended a highly valuable pre-JPM event (i.e., The Leadership Meeting put on by CRUSH Life Sciences) and also made an appearance at the nearby BTS (along with conducting five offsite biopharmaceutical executive interviews, facilitating a corporate culture roundtable, meeting with three Life Science Leader magazine editorial advisory board members, and doing a whole lot of networking). So, here are a few other takeaways from JPM20 that are worth your while.
Beyond The Walls Of The Westin St. Francis
There are a number of reasons why I believe there is significant value to being inside the Westin St. Francis, at least for a majority of JPM. For example, if you just look around during a session you will often see executives from various biopharma companies in the audience. For example, if the chief medical officer of a Big Pharma happens to be in a session of a small emerging company, then perhaps you should be asking yourself, “What do they know that I don’t?”
Of course, there is certainly value to going elsewhere during JPM, and one of the places you’d likely find the most value is The Biotech Showcase (BTS), which boasts representing $400 billion in capital. And while I didn’t attend any company presentations this year, I did sit through the BTS’s extremely well-attended concluding session, Media Roundup: Heard Around The Square – Hilton Union Square, that included insights gained and shared by:
Jeff Cramer, BioCentury (moderator)
Andrew Dunn, BioPharma Dive
Riley Griffin, Bloomberg News
Matthew Herper, STAT
Mandy Jackson, Scrip/The Pink Sheet
Erin McCallister, BioCentury
The first question posed to the group revolved around the lack of announced M&A during JPM. One panelist noted that there could be a variety of reasons, such as political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. However, they also noted that given the large number of deals announced last year, some companies may have bitten off more than they could chew, so it is quite normal for companies within an industry to do a reset. Another panelist shared that there is still plenty of appetite for deal execution, but perhaps nothing anyone would brand as being a “mega” deal. Herper cautioned not to over interpret the data (i.e., lack of deals announced during JPM week), as there were numerous deals that happened fairly recently. However, he did say that of course Big Pharma will be quiet on what deals they want to do to minimize the potential of the purchase price being driven up. Another panelist noted, as companies are still digesting multiple mega deals from years previous, it is likely we will see various spin-offs as a result. Finally, one person shared that the lack of M&A could be an indicator of companies being pleased with their current pipelines. However, she also noted that while a Big Pharma might be telling its investors that it only wants to do later-stage deals, she pointed out that Roche did more than 80 early-stage deals just last year.
The panel also discussed which therapeutic areas could be roaring in the decade of the 2020s. Though areas of NASH, dermatology, and CNS were mentioned, the consensus seemed to be that perhaps neurodegenerative diseases is where we might not only expect big deals, but big therapeutic breakthroughs (let’s hope so). I found it interesting that noticeably absent from the discussion were companies working on cellular therapies that could impact a wide variety of therapeutic areas. But perhaps what I found most insightful was the discussion around EQRx, a new venture launched by Alexis Borisy, who has been involved in multiple successful ventures including Blueprint Medicines and Editas, just to name two. However, rather than give you this panel’s take on Borisy’s venture aimed at generating cheaper medicines, I strongly encourage you to read Derek Lowe’s In The Pipeline take on the topic, “EQRx’s Challenge, And My Challenge to Them,” as it is simply outstanding, and I guarantee that it will not only get you totally up to speed on the topic, but will make you laugh out loud while doing so.
To be sure there was much more to the panel, so I would encourage your attendance next year. However, I did find it interesting that the session concluded with a mention of a new book, “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom,” by Katherine Eban. I found this intriguing because it was this book that sparked Life Science Leader editorial advisory board member Carol Nacy, CEO of Sequella, to want to meet with me during JPM. In fact, Nacy and I spoke about it during the previous day’s JPM keynote luncheon, and I posted a brief overview of the discussion on LinkedIn, which resulted in significant interest — including that of the book’s author. And though I look forward to connecting with Eban to learn more about her experiences of uncovering the indiscretions of generic manufacturers in China and India willfully violating the U.S. FDA, before doing so I first want to read The NY Times Bestseller for myself. Because Nacy didn’t want to just vent as to what in the book, “set her hair on fire,” but see how I might be able to help her not only address the problem, but spark a movement to bring generic drug manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Because whether or not you work in biopharma, to my cursory understanding of what all the book entails, and considering that 9 out of 10 prescriptions are filled for generics, this is a global issue that will impact us all, so I encourage you to become educated on the subject. In other words, buy the damn book.
Let me conclude by saying, that while Bruce Booth made it acceptable to take a pass on attending JPM, and despite my hotel bill being the equivalent of a hefty month’s mortgage, I found attending this year’s JPM to be my most valuable yet. While coast-to-coast travel work is certainly not a favorite, I have to admit that I am already looking forward to attending next year.