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Olympics of biotechnology has international flavor

Last year at about this time (actually it was April rather than May), we celebrated the first Midwest Olympics of Biotech in Chicago and broke all the meeting records: total attendance, foreign attendance, total money raised, partnering sessions, exhibit hall area - you name it, it was broken. But even new records are made to be broken!

So what am I talking about? Well, the BIO Annual International Convention, being held this year in Boston, one of the cradles of biotech. Unlike the real Olympics, it happens every year and not every four years, but like the real Olympics it is about broad international participation.

As the event is still only one day old, having started Sunday with a few warm-up events having taken place on Friday and Saturday (such as the Association of University Research Parks annual meeting). Monday is the first real day, when the vast sprawling exhibit hall opens, to get a real feel for the full attendance.

But as I said earlier, there are records being broken! Let's take the full attendance record for example: last year's meeting in Chicago was just shy of 20,000 people - rumors here in Boston that the new number will be closer to 22,000, or a growth of over 10 percent. Where are they coming from?

According to BIO president Jim Greenwood in last night's Public Official Reception, over 5,500 people, about 25 percent, are coming from overseas. The leading delegation is Canada, with over 1,100 attendees, but surprisingly the number two participation is Malaysia, with about 350 delegates here.
The deputy prime minister of Malaysia spoke last night of the importance of biotechnology in his country, and by coincidence, not knowing of this large Malaysian contingent, I had lunch yesterday with a venture capitalist from this country, which has actually a joint venture with Burrill & Co. He is represents the outpost for looking at Asian technologies and companies for Burrill, using his base in Kuala Lumpur to travel to India, Singapore, Korea, China, etc.

Host organism

Boston is sporting a brand new convention center, as the old one would have hardly been able to contain this burgeoning event, and it is big! One advantage over Chicago's huge convention center (one of the reason's why Chicago got the BIO convention to come back so quickly in 2010), is that enclosed walkways allow you to walk over the exhibit hall, from several vantage points, and see this amazing international bazaar below.

As many of you may remember, the original cities where biotech developed back in the 1970s were Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Geneva, so Boston has a rightful claim to this event. Boston has more biotech companies than any other city except San Francisco, and probably has more companies per square inch, in Cambridge, than any other place.

In fact the amount of biotech research clustered in Boston, not just the companies, but the surrounding hospital network (Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess, Dana Farber Cancer Center, and others), and university research network (Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and many others) is so attractive, that pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Novartis have both set up major R&D centers in Cambridge. So has AstraZeneca, biotech West Coast giant Amgen, and even Midwest Big Pharma Abbott Labs (in nearby Worcester).

International interest

What strikes me this year is the huge international growth of biotech. The annual meeting used to just a U.S. and Canadian event (it has been held twice in Toronto). During the late 1990s, increased participation from Europe began to change the attendance mix and flavor, and the last few years has been about Asia, starting with the Australians but now with large participation from Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. The 2007 conference also adds Latin America to the mix with delegates and programs from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile (and I heard more than a few Argentinean Spanish accents yesterday).

And rightfully so! An industry that now boosts over 5,000 biotech companies around the world, of which only about 1,500 are in the U.S. - meaning that a good 3,500 biotech companies exist OUTSIDE of the U.S. But the unique international flavor of this industry makes it exciting and when the exhibit floor opened today, it was somewhat like Epcot Center's Land of the Countries at DisneyWorld. On Monday night, many of the countries, and U.S. states, will host competing receptions at different points in the city.

The JETRO (Japanese External Trade Organization) gathering is always fun and a good insight into Japanese culture, and Illinois (IBIO) is hosting, along with Missouri (MOBIO), a Midwest blues reception.

There is much to talk about, but I think we have to recognize Boston's contribution to the development of this growing and transformational industry. As noted in Sunday's Boston Globe, some of these contributions include the following milestones:

1976-77 - The Cambridge City Council holds hearings on the safety of recombinant DNA research and passes the country's first ordinance regulating the work.

1978 - Biogen (now Biogen Idec) founded by Harvard professor Walter Gilbert and MIT professor Phillip Sharp.

1981: Genzyme founded in Boston's Chinatown.

1982: The Whitehead Institute is founded in Cambridge and becomes a leading research center providing about one-third of the human genome sequence (200).

1983: Council for Responsible Genetics is founded in Cambridge.

1985:Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the state biotech association, is founded.

1988: The “Harvard mouse” becomes the first patented animal, a genetically altered mouse susceptible to breast cancer.

1991: Genzyme's Ceredase is approved by the FDA to treat Gaucher's disease and had 2006 sales of over $1 billion.

1996: Biogen's drug Avonex for multiple schlerosis is approved by the FDA, also with sales of over $1 billion annually.

2003: The Broad Institute founded in Cambridge to give scientists access to the human genome project and to understand the molecular basis of disease.

2007: University of Massachusetts' scientist Craig Mello shares the Nobel Prize with Andrew Fire of Stanford University for discovering a special kind of RNA that can shut down individual genes.

As the original Olympics always brings a spirit of global unity (at least in one field: sports), so does the biotech Olympics bring together a worldwide spirit of progress towards conquering disease and other societal problems (renewable fuels, the environment, etc.). It is a time of hope and optimism.

Michael J. Fox, a victim of neurological disorder Parkinson's disease, has spoken here, and like others he addressed the progress made in fighting such diseases. He also urged the industry to press on with great urgency to vanquish these diseases. That is what this meeting is really about!

See you soon!

Previous articles by Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen: A Midwest passage to India, Part II

Michael Rosen: Indian trade possibilities boggle the mind

Michael Rosen: A Midwest life-science odyssey comes full circle

Michael Rosen: Bioscience clusters: Too many or room for more?

Michael Rosen: The deconstruction of “Big Pharma”

Michael S. Rosen is president of Rosen Bioscience Management, a company that provides CEO services, including financing and business and corporate development to start-up and early-stage life science companies such as Renovar and Immune Cell Therapy. Rosen also is a founder and board member of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization. He can be reached at

This article previously appeared in, and was reprinted with its permission. It is not meant to be a recommendation to buy or sell stocks!

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

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