In June the annual BIO meeting returned to San Francisco, the city many would call the birthplace of biotechnology, and the pageantry was palpable. The world’s largest representative of the biotech industry was excited about showcasing the field’s accomplishments since 1995, when BIO last held its annual meeting in the city, and the 16,000-odd attendees swarmed the sessions and exhibit hall, drawn from one colorfully extravagant regional pavilion to another.
But conference attendees were not the only groups drawn to the conference. As in previous years, a relatively small group of protesters took advantage of the BIO meeting to stage protests against biologically engineered foods and globalization, among other contentious issues. Holding placards with slogans like “Biotech foods kill farmers” and “Homeless against biotech,” several hundred activists milled about the entrances to the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, denouncing the production of genetically modified organisms and, occasionally, the attendees themselves.
In a letter to attendees prior to the conference, outgoing BIO President Carl Feldbaum gave notice that protests were expected, but to some meeting-goers the display seemed aggressive and personal. Caprion Pharmaceuticals CEO Lloyd Segal, on his way to meet this reporter for an interview, was accosted by a protester waving a placard who accused Segal of being a “mechanism of the GMO machine.” Segal’s response that his company is involved in seeking therapeutic approaches to combating cancer was deemed irrelevant, according to Segal’s account.
Perhaps such confrontations are sometimes inevitable. As BIO has grown in size and stature, it has also become a lightning rod for criticism, for better or worse. In his last speech to the annual BIO meeting, Feldbaum expressed mild irritation at having to deal with some of the more frivolous applications of biotechnology. “We are now regarded as a significant player in our nation’s capital,” he told a lunchtime gathering of attendees, “which is why personally I don’t care much for representing pet GloFish before Congress. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it erodes our representation of companies seeking more serious products, such as cures for cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.”
After 11 years at the helm of BIO, Feldbaum says he’s departing the scene primarily because he feels the time is right to move on — both for him and the organization. Although BIO has yet to announce his successor, the National Journal has reported that BIO is looking seriously at Representative Cal Dooly, a centrist Democrat from California who plans to leave Congress at the end of the year.
— John S. MacNeil