When delegates returned from the 38th annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Diego in mid-January this year, few can have imagined just how fast, and how dramatically, the biotech industry was about to change. Fewer than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported to the WHO by the end of that month, and few, other than infectious disease specialists, were taking very much notice of those reports. Dave Mead, director of a biotech company based near Cambridge, Isogenica, and a delegate at the JP Morgan event, remembers the abruptness of the change. “By early February we in Isogenica became aware that the virus was emerging rapidly from China and that it was horribly aggressive”, he says. The ‘next big event’ in his schedule, Bio-Europe, had been scheduled to be held in Paris at the end of March. It went ahead, but virtually: no large biotech events, and very few small ones, have been held in the traditional format since then.
Online events were already happening before COVID, of course, and they were becoming more popular as technologies began to mature. The crisis-led transformation of the networking industry into its current wholly online form was, however, necessarily almost instantaneous, and even today’s agile technology is taking a while to catch up. Similar transformations are taking place in other professions; the Centre for Distance Education’s ‘Jumping Online’ webinars outline how higher education is dealing with the challenge. Back in biotech, Mead found Bio-Europe’s online offering something of a disappointment. “The platform became less stable as the conference progressed and delegate numbers dropped, so the number of people we could interact with was significantly less than at the equivalent face-to-face events”, he says. The trend towards smaller numbers has been replicated in other large events since, despite their attracting higher proportions of delegates from far-flung regions and without generous travel budgets.
So where does all this leave One Nucleus, and its flagship translational conference ON Helix? Those who attended the 2019 conference will already be familiar with using Networkapp to plan their schedule, contact fellow delegates and set up meetings. This year, the whole meeting will be run that way, so while the interface looks familiar, it will be a lot more intense. The app runs on phones and tablets and on a web interface; as I have decided that my eyes are not up to spending a day and a half staring at the screen of an iPhone SE, I will be getting to know the browser-based version.
The programme looks as rich as ever. It comprises a mix of live sessions – keynotes, workshops and discussions – and pre-recorded videos, all of which will be available on demand throughout the meeting and to registered delegates for some weeks afterwards. Deciding which parallel sessions to attend has got a lot easier, as the choice is now between what to listen to during the scheduled meeting and what to catch up with later when time allows.
Not surprisingly, ON Helix 2020 has attracted a higher proportion of delegates from outside the UK and even Europe than previous years’ conferences. This provides more opportunities to network with people who could not be expected to travel to the UK for a fairly small meeting providing that time zones are borne in mind. The meeting will run in BST, and, self-evidently, a meeting with someone based in Korea (UTC +09:00) will be most effective if held in the early morning and one on the West Coast (UTC -08:00) in the evening.
Networkapp offers plenty of opportunities for delegates to post ‘quests’ to their peers and to arrange one-to-one meetings, but one aspect of traditional conferences remains particularly difficult to recreate online: spontaneity. “I really miss bumping into interesting people by chance in the queue for coffee”, adds Mead. Certainly, the digital equivalent of that serendipitous meeting remains difficult to fathom. I am particularly looking forward to ON Helix sessions named #coffeebuddies and Biotech & Beers, as it will be intriguing to see if they can replicate any of this. And when will there be a fully functional digital equivalent of the humble business card?
And what of ON Helix 2021? My main hope goes without saying: that the organisations presenting in the coronavirus session on 14 July, and others like them, will have made sufficient progress with diagnostics, drugs and vaccines for us all to meet safely again in one of Cambridgeshire’s excellent networking spaces. But we are learning a great deal from our 2020 experience. A hybrid meeting with parallel events online would, I believe, genuinely provide the best of both worlds, and give those who will still be unable or unwilling to travel an opportunity to take part.
Written by Dr Clare Sansom - Freelance Science Writer
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