Like every other conference held during the COVID-19 pandemic era, the 39th Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM) was 100% virtual this year. Consisting of hundreds of back-to-back presentations by public, private, and not-for-profit companies, JPM is our industry’s biggest event, as evidenced by the dozen or so other industry-related shows that have popped up over the years that just happen to take place in the same city — and at the same time. Yes, there are numerous other important industry conferences that take place throughout the year. But for life sciences/biopharma, the year begins and ends with JPM. So, let’s talk about this year’s virtual event. Because from my perspective, even in its virtual form, this year’s JPM was “world class,” and that fact opens it up for a world of opportunities.
Is JPM As An In-Person Meeting Dead?
Those who have attended JPM in-person are familiar with the usual headaches such a commitment brings. You are traveling to San Francisco, and if from the East Coast, or perhaps parts further, this means long flights. Hotel rooms are typically booked a year or more in advance, and in the past, the price paid was, well, ridiculous. We’ve all read accounts of hotels, restaurants, and nearly any other nearby business with available space being willing to rent it (at excessive prices) by the half hour to those in need of a place to hold a business meeting during JPM. We’ve heard about the price gouging that takes place on everything from meals, to coffee, to Ubers during that week in San Francisco. So, what if you didn’t have to put up with all that crap?
Having now attended JPM virtually, and not having to fly back on a red-eye (which sucks), I can certainly see the appeal. I mean, depending on one’s outcome, I can see how for many, the days of attending JPM in-person are now officially over. After all, the platform used by J.P. Morgan worked, for the most part, flawlessly. Sure, there were the occasional drops in sound to which we’ve become accustomed while working in a Zoom world. However, those weren’t frequent enough to annoy me to the point of not ever wanting to return. And because of that, I am sure JPM as a virtual platform will remain viable as we enter the endemic phase of COVID19. However, to those who believe JPM as an in-person event is now dead, I’d argue the reverse to be true. Because for people like me, where networking is an important outcome as to why I opt to attend the annual JPM chaos, there simply isn’t a suitable virtual platform (yet) that can take its place. And while I envision that someday, with the help of AI, there will be a virtual platform capable of connecting people in biopharma similar to dating apps (eHarmony), only better, I believe there will always be value (at some level) to the random interactions that only an in-person meeting can bring. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we just won’t have to do it as often.
For many years people have complained about JPM. As I sat on what felt like the world’s most uncomfortable chair, in a breakout room that would soon resemble people packed like sardines on a train during rush hour, I couldn’t help but overhear complaints as to why the event should be moved. “It’s too crowded.” “The venue is to small and antiquated.” “It has to be a fire hazard.” All true. Nonetheless, year after year, the conference hosted roughly 10,000 confirmed attendees. This year, in its virtual format, JPM had a little over 12,000 confirmed attendees as of the Friday before the conference started. From what I’ve heard, such an increase is a significantly different outcome when compared to most (if not all) other biopharmaceutical industry events held virtually in 2020. But let’s keep in mind that JPM had some advantages. For starters, prior to 2020, the company already had in place the ability to live stream some of its sessions (audio and video) and breakout Q&As (audio only) for those unable to attend in person. So, extending this feature to all sessions may have been a bit of a stretch, but nothing any business wouldn’t consider toward expanding its offerings and growing its business. Another advantage JPM had was time. Because while an event like the annual BIO International Convention and Conference had only about three months to pivot from a 100% in-person meeting to something fully virtual, JPM had nearly six months more. Further, as it had the advantage of not having to be first, planners for JPM could observe what worked well in a virtual format (e.g., a live event with live Q&A post presentation), along with what didn’t (i.e., prerecorded sessions with a live chat box Q&A taking place during make it feel more interactive). In addition, it had the advantage of having a tenured and experienced team; the people who have worked the presentation and breakout rooms in-person in years past were the very same working the rooms virtually. It also had an audience of attendees who had been using — and recognized the value of — virtual platforms. So, if JPM can get 12,000 virtually, who’s to say it can’t get significantly more by deploying some sort of hybrid approach next year? From my perspective, JPM has an opportunity to become bigger, better, and even more relevant to the world’s most relevant industry, and I’d be surprised if they don’t strive to capitalize on such.
What Else Did JPM Reveal?
This year’s JPM revealed that in the virtual world things have become a bit more casual. In an industry known for being ultra conservative, many presenters wore open-collared shirts instead of ties. I would imagine high heels were also on the outs. What isn’t on the outs but should be, is the use of virtual backgrounds, which seemed widely used. I get the importance of branding and consistency, but for some these just looked bad. Some presenters read from notes on a lectern, and depending on the position of the camera, this approach provided for a fine view of the top of their scalp for most of the presentation. Others you could tell were reading from computer screens. I didn’t find the latter nearly as annoying, as some soon got into a groove of talking to the screen as it they were talking to you one on one, and this provided for a level of authenticity they likely couldn’t achieve presenting in person to a room of 50 or more. Some sat a little too comfortably in their chairs (e.g., leaning way back). Some had poor lighting. And while we can make all sorts of excuses for why it is okay to have these issues during a pandemic, I would expect that when companies get back to going into the office, companies will build studios or make other forms of accommodations to offices to better facilitate virtual pitching in the future. Because despite some of the above noted nuances, the reality is that biopharmaceutical execs are getting very comfortable and good at pitching virtually. And, as many have commented on seeing the value virtual pitching provided throughout the pandemic, like remote work, you can bet it is not going away anytime soon.