Biotech Luminaries Huddle at Boston R&D Conference, Mood “Surprisingly Optimistic”

A who’s who of the Boston-area life sciences scene (including MIT Institute Professors Robert Langer and Philip Sharp) turned out at Harvard Medical School yesterday for the first Boston Biotech R&D Conference. It was a good place to be for anyone aiming to network with biotech-focused venture capitalists, fund managers, executives, academic luminaries, and industry officials.

At my makeshift office on a seat outside one of the meeting rooms, I could feel the pulse of the local life sciences sector from the banter. Much of it about the hurt put on biotechs due to the stormy financial climate. “It’s a great time to have a portfolio full of illiquid assets,” said one venture capitalist (whom I won’t name because he didn’t know that he had an eavesdropping reporter sitting behind him). I also chatted with Christoph Westphal, CEO of Sirtris, the Cambridge, MA-based biotech firm. Westphal, one of the chief organizers of the event, said the mood was surprisingly optimistic at the conference, despite the financial crisis.

“The economic meltdown hasn’t affected all the great science that’s going on, all it has done is worked its way into the system where it’s harder to bring money into companies,” Westphal said. “My overall view is that this is a more optimistic and positive meeting than I could have hoped for and I think it’s because we’re doing it at Harvard Medical School instead of in New York or in a financial setting.”

There were certainly lighter moments. During a session with a panel of fund managers and analysts focused on life sciences investments, someone from the audience asked the panelists which of the candidates for U.S. President would be best for the life sciences industry. Most of the panelists didn’t think it mattered, yet investment analyst Andrea Bici of London-based Schroder Investment Management told the audience that Sen. John McCain’s more favorable tax policy for large corporations would leave large drug companies with more capital for R&D purposes.

David Sinclair, the scientific co-founder of Sirtris and a professor at Harvard Medical School, gave a tutorial on his discovery of drugs to treat diseases of aging called “Finding Anti-Aging Drugs for Dummies.” In talking about the ability of Sirtris’ drugs to mimic calorie restriction, he noted that he once met a set of people who try to get the same benefits from actually eating less. “I’ve met these people,” he said, “and they’re perpetually hungry.” He even acknowledged that he tried their diet but gave it up after a week because he was so hungry. Good thing his company’s drugs have the potential to let people eat normally while their cells act as though were dieting.

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