Biocom Follows the Money, Revamps Local Confab to Lure Big Pharma VIPs To San Diego

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego’s leading life sciences trade association spent the last five years putting together a fall confab that recruited venture capitalists and institutional investors to look at the most innovative life sciences companies in town.

This year, Biocom is taking a different tack, seeking to play the role of matchmaker not so much with VCs, but with Big Pharma dealmakers.

“What we realized after several years was that an increasing source of capital has been from pharma partnerships,” says Biocom CEO Joe Panetta. Building a biotech business model that completely depends on raising venture capital, without considering government grants, foundations, and Big Pharma support, is now “a thing of the past,” he says.

You can get a sense for how biotech financing has changed over the last few years by taking a glance at the way Biocom’s Global Life Science Partnership Conference is structured today through Thursday at the Estancia Hotel & Spa in La Jolla. Biocom invited a targeted group of about 200 people from Big Pharma, Big Biotech, and small local companies, Panetta says. The group’s goal was to bring in that many people, in hopes of keeping the proceedings intimate. About 200 have already signed up, although people can still register, says Terri Somers, Biocom’s communications director.

The event has drawn a lot of VIP dealmakers looking to keep tabs on what’s new and innovative in San Diego biotech. Marty Birkhofer, of Bristol-Myers Squibb; Barbara Dalton of Pfizer Venture Investments; BJ Bormann of Boehringer Ingelheim; Darren Carroll of Eli Lilly; John Dunn of Biogen Idec; and Richard Douglas of Genzyme are a few of the confirmed attendees.

Dalton, based in New York, says she’s coming out to San Diego because it’s a good opportunity for her to meet local entrepreneurs, and stay connected with some key Pfizer R&D people in San Diego that have their ear to the ground. “This gives me an opportunity to see what’s going on,” she says.

While the trends do point to more and more money for life science innovation coming from Big Pharma partnerships, Panetta says it’s not necessarily a wonderful trend. Avalon Ventures’ Kevin Kinsella ripped Big Pharma in an Xconomy story last week for what he considers predatory bargaining practices that have potential to kill innovation in the biotech industry. Panetta hadn’t had a chance to read the post when we spoke last week, but he didn’t disagree with the overall sentiment.

Joe Panetta

On the biotech side, you have entrepreneurs who want to get the best terms possible for new innovations, to provide returns to their investors and keep the sector healthy. On the pharma side, you have companies that need to plug holes in their R&D pipelines, but many also feel burned for overpaying for hot technologies of the past. As a result, many now offer up much stingier terms than they once did. It could make for some pretty frank and lively conversations about how the right balance should be struck.

“Big Pharma will have to wake up,” Panetta says. “They can’t just wait it out and pick up the pieces and get bargain basement prices anymore. They need to see that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”