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Spring Life Science Conference Season Proves Cloudy

NEW YORK, April 9 - In the life sciences technology conference world, March didn't end like it was supposed to: Instead of going out like a lamb, the month scurried out like a sad startled mouse with its tail between its legs.

 

Not only was there the issue of the gloomy macroeconomic outlook that makes it harder for companies to justify conference travel and fancy booth displays, but war clouds blowing out of Iraq and the epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome led some companies to impose transatlantic travel restrictions on employees.

 

At the Drug Discovery Technology Europe conference held in Stuttgart last week, several hundred participants showed up to search for hope about better days ahead, while speakers from a US office of Aventis' and Johnson Mathey subsidiary PharmaEco cancelled due to travel restrictions imposed by their companies. (It was not clear whether the travel restrictions were due to the war or other internal company factors.)

 

"These are very strange days for our industry," said William Bains, the chair of a business forum on March 31. Money has gone in, but little has come out, and there are questions as to what is happening, explained Blains, who recently founded a drug discovery company, Delta-G.com after leaving Amedis Pharma.

 

The business model in which a rough scientific idea is transformed into a public company after five or so rounds of VC funding "is fundamentally broken," he said. Now companies have to have a drug in Phase II a, not just a promising technology or a promising idea, to even get those rounds of financing. "There is little appetite for new technology," said Bains.

 

Meanwhile, at BioAnalytica, held in an airplane hangar-sized hall at Munich's Trade Fair, many exhibitors reported that the booth traffic was sluggish and that they were not sure they would return to the next conference in 2005. 

The conference organizers released an attendance report saying that 5,000 people from 25 countries had showed up --80 percent of them from Germany. Given there were about 260 booths, that's about 20 people per booth over the four-day period, or about 5 per day, a figure that seemed to match the view from the trade fair floor. Many came out of curiosity, and not a few to seek jobs. VdBiol's BioBerufe online career forum set up a multi-paneled job board at one end of the hall, which was mobbed the first day or so. This is not surprising given that the 11.1 percent unemployment rate in Germany has spilled over into the life sciences.

 

Nevertheless, companies showing at BioAnalytica slogged through, displaying their sexily spinning genomics and proteomics robots, their next-generation biochip systems, and software platforms that promise to integrate various aspects of the drug discovery process.

 

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation was not much different. An IBC protein chip conference in

San DiegoMonday and Tuesday, which last year drew several hundred attendees, saw its attendance reduced.

Organizers of one event, the American Academy for Cancer Research's annual meeting in Toronto, which was scheduled to wrap up today, even decided to cancel their conference altogether in order to prevent their physician attendees from spreading the viral syndrome to their immunocompromised patients. (

Torontohas become the North American epicenter of the SARS epidemic, with 190 suspected cases and 10 deaths.

Although the AACR's cancellation meant that tool companies such as Ciphergen lost the opportunity to showcase the cancer research applications of their technology to an audience of physician-scientists, and symposia on applications of proteomics in cancer were cancelled, not all was lost. The AACR conference program, which includes the full text of over 100 gene expression-related posters and 6 proteomics posters is still posted on the AACR's website, and can be accessed by anyone who goes through a free registration process.

 

With the economic, political, and medical obstacles now being put on travel, one might wonder whether web-based conferences might replace the real ones. But given the value of in-person networking, this nasty conference season is likely to be similar to the April snow that has fallen this week on cities from New York to Berlin: In a month or two, it will all be forgotten.

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