The JP Morgan (JPM) Conference, a staple of the life science sector and one of biotech’s biggest conferences, will be going virtual in January 2021 which has become something of a norm for events under Covid-19. One Nucleus has also been running its own BioWednesdays virtually and our first session of 2021 drew together a panel of experienced JPM Conference attendees to look at what to expect from a virtual JPM Week and what they would like to see for the future.
The panel was knowledgably chaired by Melanie Toyne-Sewell, Managing Partner, Instinctif Partners - Life Sciences. The esteemed panel line-up from both sides of the Atlantic included: Mike Ward, Global Head of Thought Leadership at Decision Resources Group (DRG), Jennifer Landress, Senior VP and Chief Operating Officer at Biocom California, Tina Gunnink, Managing Director at EBD Group US, Tim Brears, CEO at Cambridge based biotech Evonetix Ltd, Allan Marchington, Managing Partner at Bridge Valley Ventures and Teresa Lavoie, Principal at Fish & Richardson P.C.
Melanie asked the panellists what will be missed the most from attending a virtual JPM Conference. Allan confirmed that he would be attending this year’s conference on a virtual basis and that serendipity would be missed the most. Encompassed within this are those conversations that you have on a regular basis with others in the community whereby you catch up on past activities and get up to speed with future ones – “a bit like sending Christmas cards!”. The expensive hotel rooms would not be missed. Teresa added that the “energy and pride” in the industry will be missed which is difficult to recreate in a virtual format – often to referred to as the “mood music”. Teresa also drew on her experience of adapting to a virtual world and likened it to being catapulted into the future where we do not have to jump on planes and not all meetings have to be face to face – we have widened our options for communication.
Looking at it from a conference organiser perspective, Tina commented on how a formal virtual partnering system can move some way towards replacing the magic of serendipitous meetings when virtual networking sessions are made more exciting. Tina described the novel ways that will be used to increase engagement at this year’s conference between delegates, such as a virtual bike ride and a Blackjack masterclass to increase informal interactions. Remo is also very much growing in popularity for informal networking. Thus, there are opportunities there, especially considering circumstances. Tim concluded that a formal partnering system is helpful but being there in person allows for serendipity as well, getting the best of both worlds.
The West Coast region of the US is the epicenter of the conference so considering a virtual format this year it might be expected that it will impact global engagement. Jennifer highlighted that Zoom has impacted how we make our connections, and, in some instances, they can be more meaningful when less distracted by a busy conference hall. Also, with the longer format of the virtual event, there is perhaps more time in which to spread out meetings and maintain less of a frenetic pace. This paints an encouraging picture. Allan recounts successful meetings and deals struck at previous conferences and reflects on whether the time zone issue could discourage some, but this will be balanced against the longer timeframe of the conference of course.
A lot of news stories for the year will typically originate from the JPM Conference and Mike highlighted that companies will often save their news for the week. Mike’s good news is that a virtual conference will still be the focus for the life science community, and alongside this we should not underestimate the benefits of the virtual format, such as more time to digest relevant presentations and easier scheduling for individuals attending. But even with all this, being virtual will represent the loss of some interaction which could have turned into a conversation containing exclusive insights! Jennifer echoed the sentiment and added that we should still expect a lot of company announcements around and during the conference. Jennifer added that she was still looking forward to scheduling in “happy hours” and “coffee mornings” with familiar contacts to maintain the one-on-one connections. Finally, Jennifer reminisces about the “glitter Converse” days which was a trend that started as attendees, typically female, would share images of practical footwear on social channels (those they would use to get through a heavy meeting schedule comfortably!). The conversation then turns to what can be done to substitute this in the virtual world with suggestions of “funky” Zoom backgrounds or participants sharing their “below Zoom level wear!”.
The final theme posed to the panel was what they wanted to see for the JPM Conference in 2022 and beyond. Teresa placed emphasis on the expanded timeframe as something to take forward. By building in an element of preliminary work in the autumn ‘virtually’, this will relieve some of the pressure during the ‘live’ event and lead to “less craziness”. Tim would like to see more leverage of the online partnering facilities and Tina highlighted that “accelerated learning” from the previous year can only go towards building something better for 2022 and beyond, so leveraging a hybrid format potentially. Mike suggested that the outputs from a virtual format this year could serve to guide future formats once the community “appraises” the deals that have come out so it will be interesting to see what the outputs are. Jennifer echoed these thoughts and would be keen to see how well the deal flow operates in a virtual world and draws a distinction between seasoned professionals and those who are newer to the industry perhaps having more of a challenge.
Shortly before closing, the panel shared their thoughts on a question posed by the audience on how optimistic they were about returning to face-to-face events in 2021. The consensus was that 2022 was perhaps more realistic, but regional differences in the scale of the pandemic mean that in some parts of the globe the hybrid model is already being fully evaluated. Of course, positive news about the vaccines being rolled out will help us on the way. Finally, the virtual world may go some way towards “leveling the playing field”. For instance, a physical world presents opportunity for bumping into those you know, but virtually this is less significant, and it may be easier for smaller companies to network. However, as Mike highlights, the young companies who do not have the same networks as established companies and could be challenged as they will have less exposure to “accidental collisions”; those that they may have been encountered at a physical JPM Conference. Allan concludes that when it comes to striking deals meeting face to face is still the preference.
Blog by Alicia Gailliez, One Nucleus Business Development Manager