Blog | August 20, 2018

Why A Biopharma Executive Founded A Game-Changing Conference

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Amir Katali
Amir Kalali, M.D., chief curator and chairman, The CNS Summit.

During the last quarter of 2018, I had phone calls with every member of Life Science Leader magazine’s editorial advisory board (EAB). The goal was to gather insights on what we should be covering in 2018. However, I also asked for their thoughts on “can’t-miss conferences” for the coming year. Responses varied depending upon discipline. For example, those involved in R&D mentioned The Conference Forum’s R&D Leadership Summit, while those focused on manufacturing often cited ISPE’s Annual Meeting. There were also the mentions of ASCO, the annual BIO International Convention, and of course, J.P. Morgan’s annual healthcare conference. However, I was surprised by how many members of our EAB raved about one with which I was not familiar — The CNS Summit. So I set out to learn more and see how I could score an invite. I soon found myself having a number of phone calls with the conference’s chief curator and chairman, Amir Kalali, M.D. Turns out Dr. Kalali founded this conference nine years ago while the global head of Quintiles (now IQVIA) neuroscience center of excellence. Knowing how busy biopharmaceutical executives are, I was curious to learn why Kalali decided to create a conference and what it is about the CNS Summit that had so many of our ed board members buzzing. With his permission, I decided to share some of Dr. Kalali’s perspectives in the following Q&A.

Why Did You Decide To Found Your Own Conference?

Because people asked me to. It’s the old saying of, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” I certainly had too much going on, but felt there was a need for a meeting driven by drug developers. The only people who can change the culture and the efficiency of what drug developers do is drug developers. Such an approach is not going to be on the agenda of academic societies, nor should it be. Nor is it on the agenda of commercial meeting companies who might be doing drug development one day and nuclear power stations the next. I felt that the current entities involved in drug-development type meetings were very traditional and had become much more concerned about the size and revenue aspects of a meeting, not necessarily changing how we do things.

Scientists and others in our industry underestimate the value of going to meetings, interacting with new people, and being exposed to new ideas. We tend to get siloed and aren’t seeing what’s out there. Historically, people went to scientific society meetings and didn’t interact much with each other, as they didn’t see the need for collaboration. But as we started addressing more complex diseases, people came to the realization that no one company had the resources to tackle these diseases on their own . To gain a better understanding of biology necessitated greater collaboration. I feel there has been a lack of meetings that specifically address such a need. In my experience, academic meetings focus on disease biology and academic issues, while commercial meetings often don’t move the field forward. This is why I founded the CNS Summit.

As a Biopharmaceutical Executive, What Was It You Looked For In Picking A Conference To Attend?

The caliber of people attending, what is the reputation of the conference organizer, whether the conference was specifically focused on drug development versus disease area, was the meeting about moving the field forward and creating a community, or was it just people presenting their data and going home. Many commercial meetings are pay to play, and it was clear from the program that those who were up on stage paid to be there. I didn’t find a lot of value in those types of meetings. In my experience, having a good meeting comes down to content and the people who are attending.

What Are Some Examples Of Things That Turn You Off At Conferences?

One is conferences where people talk and complain about the same issues, but no one wants to try to think about solutions. Who wants to go to the same conference year after year where things haven’t moved and people are talking about the same problems? Another is where you go to what is supposed to be an expert meeting, and the people giving the talks begin by covering basic facts which everybody in the room already know. I don’t believe this is useful, and the result is boredom and people tuning out. We are in an age where people don’t spend a long time on anything. As a result, long lectures no longer work. Yet, for some reason, traditional conferences are being run the same as they were 50 years ago. For years I’ve argued that conferences should provide free Wi-Fi. However, some societies argue that this enables people focusing on their phones and not what’s going on up on stage. I contend that if your content is compelling, people will not only be looking up on stage, but those who are tech savvy will be tweeting about the conference and the speaker, and I see as positive . Another issue that comes up with certain disease societies is they don’t allow people to take pictures of the presentation slides. To me that is odd, because isn’t the whole point of a conference to share information? If you don’t want your content shared, then don’t display it in a public meeting.

Not Being A Meeting Planner, How Did You Go About Getting The CNS Summit Started?

Actually, the CNS Summit wasn’t my first experience in running a meeting, as I did another meeting for leaders in neuroscience drug development that is now in its sixteenth year. Though that was much smaller than the CNS Summit, it was actually more difficult to get started, because we were trying to get people who traditionally didn’t talk to each to do so. How did I know? Back then, which is seven years prior to starting the CNS Summit, I had six Phase 3 clinical trial programs going on, all in the exact same indication. I knew all the leaders of the companies doing these studies, as I was the person running almost all of them on their behalf. But nobody was talking to each other, which just seemed crazy, because I could see they were all facing the same issues. Each seemed to think they knew best and likely couldn’t learn from others, which clearly isn’t true. The CNS Summit began as a much bigger meeting, and by then I already had people familiar with the idea of communicating with one another. Plus, I had experienced meeting planners, so the logistics of outsourcing what we wanted to do to a meeting planning company wasn’t that difficult.

What Makes A Good-To-Great Meeting?

What I believe really distinguishes a good meeting is whether the people running it truly care about it. There are other meetings I go to where everything tends to build on the previous meeting, and there isn’t much new that gets put into it. Like anything in life, if you really work hard at something it tends to look natural and easy. But anything good tends to have taken a lot of work behind the scenes. The key is whether or not someone is willing to spend the time required. The way I look at it is if you’re going to be involved in anything, it had better be good. As such, I’m driven to create the best meeting there is, and to do that we focus on content. As we have grown we have had to educate attendees that our content is worth going to. Now I realize some people go to meetings and never attend a session, but that’s not our culture.

What Makes The CNS Summit Unlike Any Other Event In Our Industry?

For starters, it evolves and changes every year. People who have attended the CNS Summit for a while have now become used to the idea that this meeting won’t be like the year previous. When you want to do something different from what people are used to, you can’t take a radical approach in the first year, because it could be too shocking to attendees. Our approach is to bring people along as we create a meeting that is much more experiential. We also don’t have long talks. In addition, we try to get really interesting participants that people within our industry haven’t likely met before. While we want the CNS Summit to be a community, we don’t want it to become like a high school reunion where people come back every year just to see the same people. While there is some comfort to such an approach, to drive change requires nudging folks outside of their comfort zones. One of the ways we challenge ourselves is to find new participants  to take part so that we  can see how others think differently about issues. To do this I attend a lot of meetings that aren’t directly related to biopharma, for example, meetings about technology or biohacking. Interesting things tend to happen at the edges, and so I am always looking to learn from other industries to see how what they are doing might apply to us in life sciences. As an industry we don’t interact with enough people from the outside. This might have been fine five or 10 years ago when tech companies weren’t yet interested in healthcare. But as we have seen with Alphabet, Amazon, and many other tech companies, there are a lot of other industries looking at healthcare as a target. Whether we like it or not, people are going to be in this space, making it more important than ever for biopharma not to be insular. The summit is really about being at the forefront of understanding what’s coming so we can develop the skillsets necessary to adapt and continue being productive as we move forward. For example, at the 2017 meeting we had one of the most interesting computer hackers in the world give a talk. He did a great job of helping people understand how they can protect their IT systems, making it scary and funny at the same time. Feedback from attendees was very positive, and many people named him as their favorite. Even more interesting was how many attendees noted feeling a bit guilty for having found this speaker to be the most interesting, as they felt his talk wasn’t directly related to their job. But here is the real kicker. This speaker, like many of our most-interesting CNS Summit speakers, wasn’t advertised. Unlike many conferences that showcase all of their great speakers in advance toward drawing increased attendance, we deliberately don’t announce some of our most interesting speakers. This ensures an element of surprise and is one of the ways we are able to get people to stay in the room, as they never know who or what might happen next. Our approach has been to optimize the CNS Summit for attendee experience.

What Have You Found Most Gratifying From Having Founded The CNS Summit?

One is seeing the relationships form between participants (who would have otherwise never met) who have gone on to collaborate and be very productive.. As I was hearing about these successes all the time, it became a metric we actually try to track. We don’t measure success of the CNS Summit by the number of people who attend, but rather by how many collaborations we’ve helped to start.

Have Some Of Collaborations That Began At The CNS Summit Presented At Subsequent CNS Summits?
Yes. We’ve also had people start companies from ideas gained from attending. Here is another interesting outcome. For our innovation showcase we have early startups present. Their technologies might not necessarily seem related to life sciences, but we feel there is a reason for why these companies should be here. Sometimes by interacting with CNS Summit attendees they’ve learned of opportunities where their technologies could be adapted to a biopharma need, and some have gone on to become much bigger and more successful.

What does the CNS in CNS Summit stand for?

The CNS in our name actually stands for collaborating for novel solutions. The CNS Summit is about digital transformation and the future of life sciences. From the very beginning of the summit’s founding our focus has been on collaboration, innovation, and technology. As a result, many of the issues we discuss are multi-therapeutic.

What Plans Can You Share About Future Meetings?

We have a leadership council that meets on a monthly basis. For now our plan is to make sure that our culture remains the same with a focus on helping the community make an impact. Our main plan is to reach as many people as we can, because to have impact you obviously have to have scale. That being said, we don’t want the CNS Summit to grow into a giant meeting. There’s a subset of people in drug development who are looking to do good and have a positive impact, and are willing to step up to do that, and look forward to coming to a meeting where they can do just that. Those are the people we are trying to attract.