San Francisco, we’re coming. Of course, you are ready for the biotech onslaught. The cab drivers, hotel people, cops, security dudes, restaurant and bar staff—you all know the drill come January.
So what about all the healthcare industry capitalists? Are you ready to make the most of this week when all the decision makers and big investors are together in about a five-block radius?
Yeah, like thousands of others, I’ve been thinking ahead to the 32nd annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference that runs Jan. 13-16. One Forbes commentator, last year, called this event the “Burning Man” of biotech. I don’t know about that, but I have been coming to this conference for about 10 years, and have learned a few do’s and don’ts.
I hope some of these basic tips might help veterans and newbies prepare for a productive mid-winter trip to the City by the Bay. Or for any big professional conference, for that matter.
Don’t get overscheduled. I’ve made this mistake many times. It’s normal to be such an eager beaver that you pack your entire calendar with 1-on-1 meetings, in 30-minute blocks, from 7 am to 6 pm every day. And that’s all before the evening receptions. I’ve found it hard to resist, because so many people are doing so many interesting things that I want to know about. But be warned. If you get overscheduled, you run the risk of having high quantity/low quality interactions. Even worse, you risk missing out on serendipitous encounters on the sidewalks, in the hallways, in the line at Starbucks. The best idea I got at the meeting last year came from a random encounter with Zafgen CEO Tom Hughes. He and I bumped into each other on Geary Street and chitchatted about the FDA’s “Breakthrough Therapy” designation. I’m glad I wasn’t stuck in a meeting.
Get some exercise. Brains can only absorb so many facts, and do only so much interpretive dot-connecting in one day. I start every day with a morning run, which gets the endorphins pumping, and relaxes me. I can’t prove it, but I feel like my brain works better after exercise. I’m not the only one. The folks at MacDougall Biomedical Communications organize a group fun run at 6 am on Monday of JP Morgan week. Whether it’s before, or after, a marathon day of meetings, even just 15-20 minutes on a treadmill in the hotel gym is a must.
Don’t eat a fancy, sit-down lunch. Unless you’re closing that one megadeal with a single Big Pharma bigshot, and you have lots of time to break bread, I’d suggest avoiding the 75-90 minute investment in a sit-down lunch. A few people will stay for the lunch and keynote talks inside the actual conference at the Westin St. Francis. Most don’t do that, so bringing your own brown bag makes sense. The restaurants will be too busy to handle the crowds, meaning you’ll have to wait in line, and run the risk of being late for your next meeting. Who needs that stress?
Get some sleep. Sorry to state the obvious, but people are more productive after a good night’s sleep. Yes, there are dimly lit cocktail lounges where hipsters and aspiring hipsters can hang until 1 am. Interesting conversations will be had. But unless you’re still 22, don’t try to stay out until 1-2 am and think you’re going to bounce back with a worthwhile 7 am meeting the next day.
Don’t drink alcohol. Blasphemy, right? The beer and wine tend to flow in the evenings, as a lot of people want to unwind and socialize after a long day. As the famous Onion T-shirt says, ‘I Enjoy Drinking Beer’ as much as the next guy. But, again, stating the obvious, getting liquored up at JPMorgan comes with a price. Some receptions actually encourage people to get hammered. Do you really want to make a fool of yourself in front of your business colleagues? Do you want to be hung over the next morning? I will drink my coffee in the morning, but after that, I will be alternating between water and mineral water.
Wear comfortable shoes. This tip mostly applies to the (relatively few) ladies who attend JP Morgan. Lots of people will be carrying pedometers and Fitbits, trying to show off how many 400-meter dashes and 4-flight stairway climbs they can manage in a 13-meeting day. Lisa Suennen, the managing member of Psilos Group, jokingly tells me she advises people to “carry a vat of Tylenol” (At least I hope she’s joking). But seriously, this is a mental and physical endurance event, and if you can’t jog a quarter-mile in your shoes, you shouldn’t wear them.
Don’t forget your device chargers. Always remember to charge up your smartphone and/or laptop/tablet in the hotel at night. A few poor souls will forget to pack them in their suitcases. Believe me, you don’t want to be the one heading to the corner electronics store getting ripped off for a battery charger.
Go grocery shopping Sunday night. Stock up on at least three days of quick, high-energy foods like bagels, peanut butter, Clif Bars, apples, and bananas. These items will help you get a jump on the day with a fast breakfast before the long march of meetings, and you can carry them in your bag for lunch. Nobody has time to go grocery shopping during the conference, so it’s best to do this on Sunday night. I have had too many moments when I forgot to eat anything from 6 am to 6 pm, and I know I’m not alone. Get enough food to function.
Meet some new people, some old people, some random people doing cool stuff you know little about. This is about strategic networking. Part of the magic of JP Morgan is the sheer density, and diversity, of people in one place doing so many interesting things. It’s a great opportunity to strengthen your network by seeking out new people you want to know, and staying in touch with people who live far away. JP Morgan week is also an opportunity to meet someone doing something cool on the edges of your field of expertise. If you’re a chemist talking to another chemist, that’s great, but a chemist talking to a bioinformaticist might lead to a different kind of creative spark. All you have to do is show up at a reception, and be genuinely curious about what other people are doing. They might bore you, in which case you can easily move on. But they might surprise you, or even help you come up with a great new idea.
Don’t get so focused on one thing you lose sight of the big picture. Everybody needs goals, and biotech requires an ability to intensely focus on that single goal for a long time. Maybe instead of spending 100 percent of the time trying to close that deal or woo the investors to support your IPO, it would be wise to take the blinders off occasionally. Maybe that perfect VP of R&D candidate just shook your hand at a party, and you didn’t even know it because you were so distracted by thoughts of buttonholing the guy from OrbiMed in the corner.
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