Harry Nelson

Coming to JPM17: Worth the Effort

JPM17 #JPM17

This week marks the 35th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM17 or, for the Twitterati, #JPM17) at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, a ritual of the second week of January.  Over 10,000 (and probably over 12,000) life sciences and health technology company executives, large and small, established and start-ups gather.  The established industry players reassure investors of their progress; the start-ups work on wooing investors, who are all here.

The event has gotten so big in recent years that there are about a half-dozen “tag-along” events going on in parallel (or right before or right after JPM17), including the OneMedForum (at the Elks Club), the Biotech Showcase (at the Hilton Union Square) the CTIC Healthcare Investment Summit (at the Airport Marriott), the Start-Up Health Festival (at 180 Montgomery), the Redefining Early Stage Investments conference (at the Marines Memorial Club), and the Breakthroughs in Healthcare Diversity Symposium (RESI, on the Genentech campus). That’s not including the dozens (probably over 100-200) breakfast meetings, happy hours, receptions, dinners, and other events interspersed from Sunday night through Wednesday.

I’ll relay my substantive takeaways in the next several days, but wanted to share my immediate reactions. There are some interesting divisions among the people who show up.  First, there is the divide between those who are here for the content and those who are here for the networking.  With the list above of parallel conferences, there is no shortage of speakers and panels. (I am writing this after having given my first interview of three scheduled media interviews today.) But my estimate is that at most 15% of the people who show up actually were invited and go to the JPM17 events, another 20-25% actually go to one of the other events, meaning that a significant majority just hang out at the coffee bars, restaurant, hotel lobbies for the schmoozing and pitching. A minority of the people here are attending the big events, buts the majority spend their time pitching and being pitched: while big life sciences and healthcare companies are pitching their stories in the big rooms, all of the small ones are pitching investors for money. If your goal is to hear the actual show, you may be better off to follow the live feed than to show up.

Another division is the attitude toward the event itself.  A few years ago, writing for Forbes, Dr. Joon Yun likened JPM to Burning Man, noting that both events had gone from cool under-the-radar gatherings to crowded, mainstream happenings. Talk to many longtime attendees – and especially people who share that they used to attend but stopped coming now that it has become such a happening – and they will regale with you stories from the old days before the hordes descended.  I have to say that all of the crowded spaces gave me a new appreciation for what I missed, especially when hearing about it from smart people like Dr. David Friend, Chief Transformation Officer and Managing Director of the Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation at BDO. David offered memories of the Conference back in 1984 (Year 2) when there when there were 600 people all at the Embarcadero Hyatt.

In contrast to the cache of having been here for 25 years, there are newbies like me, who are like kids in a candy store. While I am constantly sharing my own ideas, it’s energizing to stop talking and listen to what other people are talking about. It’s a chance to see up close, all at once, the measurable progress so many different companies are making towards the next generation of medicines, edging further along on genomic-driven biotechnology and other advances, and to distill themes.  At the same time, like any gathering that has grown by a factor of 20, there are way too many people trying to crowd into too little hotel lobbies and bars. The big companies arrange nice hotel conference rooms with food, beverage, and swag bags (nothing too exciting, a lot of umbrellas given how wet it was). The early-stage companies, meanwhile, were hunkered down in every little nook and cranny of every hotel lobby in a one-square mile radius. It feels a little like high school, albeit with a fairly uncool, middle-aged crowd and way more men than women, with everyone packed in, jamming lobbies standing around in small groups or clustered in chairs schmoozing about the particulars of some company looking for money.

On a practical level, it’s a great chance to connect and reconnect with folks in from the East Coast and from all over the world.  Yes, I am on record with my ambition to get the bioscience and digital health community to L.A.  But since that’s a long way off, it is nice to be able to fly an hour north and see folks from all over the world, including many investors and companies that we’ve been in dialogue with, law firm clients, and companies we’ve invested in.

On Day One, it’s apparent on a practical level, there’s too much to “take in” with all of the parallel events going on simultaneously. My notes for next year include more advance planning. While it was all energizing and interesting, at the end of the day, I felt that, next year, I need to bring some of my team with me to cover more ground. This year, I bounced around for meetings and realized that the smart people were the ones staying put in one place and letting newbies like me come to meet them. As much as I ordinarily love walking around San Francisco, the nonstop rain made it a slightly less pleasant experience. For next year, I am going to plant myself and let other people come to me. Along the same lines, for next year, we will look at having our own events to share some ideas. I had a series of great meetings, but had to defer several planned meetings because of too little time and logistical challenges.

The most annoying challenge is all of the badges. I had a client and several friends offer to arrange badges for several of the conferences. The problem is that, unless and until you have the requisite badge, you are persona non grata at several key sites. With wall-to-wall people and aggressive security, I had one meeting that I couldn’t get into because I didn’t have a Start-Up Health badge. (Start-Up Health, you can make it up to me by inviting me to speak next year.)

Finally, JPM17 is a great chance to talk to plenty of smart people and test some of my pet ideas. I have been a contrarian regarding the optimism that biotech investors expressed when stock prices rose on the Trump election victory. In the book, we predict drug prices to be one of the few issues where President Trump will actually weigh in as a populist, which would be bad news for biotech.  I am glad to hear the case against my own view and to be proven wrong. The same is true in digital health, where I have been more bullish about the outlook for consumer spending as people are more incentivized by thinner insurance coverage to spend out of pocket. Only time will tell.

What’s your take on JPM17? Are you here or staying away? While I’ll be sharing my takeaways, I’d love to hear what you think of JPM17 and, more broadly, what 2017 and beyond will hold for biotech, digital health, and more broadly for healthcare and life sciences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *