A biopharmaceutical industry CEO once told me, “You gain a sense for how your company is perceived by when and where you present during JPM.” Having your presentation scheduled on the first day is certainly better than having it on the last day, and the bigger the room the better. Thus, it says a lot that Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) and Celgene kicked off the grand ballroom presentations at this year’s #JPM19 (i.e., the 37th Annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, January 7 – 10, 2019, San Francisco, CA). Although, the market didn’t necessarily love the announced plan of BMS acquiring Celgene for approximately $74 billion; BMS’ stock dropped while Celgene’s popped, indicating some feel BMS is paying too much. I was in the grand ballroom before and after the presentation and had an opportunity to observe Mark Alles, CEO of Celgene, and Giovanni Caforio, CEO of BMS engaging with one another. Positive chemistry between the execs who actually brokered the deal sets the tone for those responsible for the eventual integration. Now we just have to see if that actually comes to fruition. We all recall the biggest deal to never take place (the $160 billion planned merger between Pfizer and Allergan), so let’s not discount the possibility of some X factor impeding Bristol and Celgene’s best-laid plans.
Usually, much of the time I spend on-site at JPM is done in the breakouts.
This year, though, I began day one at JPM 2019 listening to presentations and networking in the grand ballroom. Of the 14 companies that presented in the big room on the first day, five (BMS, Celgene, Gilead, J&J, Merck and Pfizer) opted not to conduct Q&A breakouts. While some might be understandable (e.g., Celgene/BMS), I believe the idiom “nature abhors a vacuum” to be something company leaders should consider in the future. If a biopharma company’s leadership opts not to engage in unscripted Q&A at one of the biggest biopharma forums of the year, one has to wonder why. A shirking of message-shaping responsibility provides an open opportunity for others to fill the void — and could be a contributor to why biopharma’s reputation remains in the crapper. In fact, during JPM, Vas Narasimhan, M.D., who hasn’t yet been the CEO of Novartis for a full year, is the only exec I recall discussing our industry’s reputation as being “something we need to pay closer attention to and take much more seriously.”
There were a number of companies that formerly presented in smaller rooms that found themselves on the big stage. These included bluebird bio and Regeneron, and I noticed something interesting from listening to each. For starters, it is easy to recognize the positive chemistry between Regeneron’s cofounders Len Schleifer and George Yancopoulos. Schleifer began his presentation highlighting how he has been presenting at JPM for about 30 years and, “it continues to get old.” This was met with a burst of laughter from the audience and a knowing grin from Yancopoulos. I imagine anyone who has been attending JPM for a while can likely relate to Schleifer’s sentiment. When Schleifer turned the stage over to Yancopoulos to cover the company’s pipeline, Yancopoulos thanked Schleifer for leaving him more than two minutes, which he noted not being the case last year. Had you been watching Schleifer, you would have noticed how this little zinger from Yancopoulos brought a subtle smile to Schleifer. Personally, I found it refreshing that two highly intelligent and extremely successful businessmen don’t take themselves too seriously. I wonder how much their ability to have fun has contributed to them being able to help so many with debilitating diseases.
There was a lot of interesting stuff said during bluebird bio’s breakout session. And if you were listening via a live webcast, well, you probably heard it all. But if you weren’t in the room, here is something you missed. During the Q&A in the Borgia room (claiming capacity for 100), a person walked in late through the front doors. This person seemed to have some sort of ambulatory disability. Glancing around the person noted there not being any seats. But as this person’s head is turned looking for a chair, Nick Leschly, the company’s CEO, who is seated at a table with his ELT (and the closest person to the door), springs up, turns around to grab an empty chair behind him. His intent is to offer it to the late comer (I know this because Leschly and I spoke about it after). But while Leschly’s back is turned to the audience grabbing the chair, the person opts to leave. When Leschly turns around with the chair, seeing the person no longer there, shrugs his shoulders, smiles, puts the chair back, and quickly takes his seat. All of this took only a few seconds, yet I found it was worth noting. Because nobody would have faulted Leschly had he done nothing, chalking it up to the usual chaos one has come to expect during JPM. But this small gesture, even though it turned out to be unnecessary, told me a lot about Leschly’s situational awareness, and perhaps provided a little insight into how he is as a leader.
Just Cause You Aren’t In The Big Room Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have Big News
I went to catch the tail end of the Q&A with Seattle Genetics, and thank Clay Siegall, the company’s founder and CEO, for agreeing to be interviewed for the March 2018 issue of Life Science Leader (I was doing a lot of thanking during JPM). As I waited for our quick chat, other people continued flowing in. By the time Siegall and his team were leaving, the breakout session was standing room only for Illumina , an American company that develops, manufactures, and markets integrated systems for the analysis of genetic variation and biological function. According to the Motley Fool, investors didn’t like what the company’s CEO, Francis deSouza, had to say at JPM. From my vantage point, I noticed significant interest in Illumina from folks hailing from China. I recall deSouza commenting on how much sequencing data was generated last year using his company’s systems (i.e., 100 petabytes). Not being a techie, I appreciated his analogy of that amount being “around 25 times the size of Netflix's entire catalog.”
Want to know some other big stories from this year’s JPM? How about Eli Lilly announcing the planned acquisition of Loxo Oncology for roughly $8 billion. Another big mover was Sage Therapeutics, which announced that its oral treatment (SAGE-217) for postpartum depression (PPD) had met the main goal of reducing symptoms of the condition. As this was done on Monday, the company’s CEO, Jeff Jonas, seemed extremely enthusiastic for his presentation and breakout on Tuesday. I don’t recall an executive presenting at JPM following a more than $40/share increase (33 percent) in their company’s stock resulting from a positive data announcement. The only obstacle that remains (besides an eventual approval) is for Sage to get folks to consider the treatment of depression with the same seriousness we approach other diseases (e.g., cancer).
I realize the importance of networking beyond the walls of the Westin St. Francis during JPM, but I also appreciate the importance of being in the center of the JPM universe — -as do others. For example, during one session I saw an executive from Catalent in the front row taking copious notes. We spoke afterwards, and they commented how they enjoy sitting through presentations of their customers. “It gives me a level set for what is truly important,” they shared. While JPM has expanded beyond the hotel of where it is hosted, there is something to be said for spending at least some of your time at the place that’s the center of all the chaos and madness.