calbio2013-banner-299x1481I recently attended CALBIO 2013 in San Diego, along with Samy HamdoucheAndrew Lim and Weston Nichols. The event was headlined by Craig Venter and Patrick Soon-Shiong, and breakout sessions featured industry veterans who discussed topics ranging from corporate venture capital to university tech transfer. Most importantly, there were numerous opportunities to mix and mingle, both during casual coffee breaks and formal speed-dating sessions.

With San Diego sunshine overhead, the atmosphere at the conference was upbeat and friendly, and merging the digital and biological realm was a recurring theme. Venter kicked off the conference with a glimpse into the biotechnology of tomorrow. He spoke of “biological teleportation,” where computers hooked up to molecular printers can download DNA blueprints from the Internet and immediately make biological molecules such as insulin. Using this system, pathogen genomes could be distributed to disease control centers around the world as outbreaks happen, allowing nations to respond with vaccines in real time.

Soon-Shiong revealed his planned biomedical information superhighway – an IT infrastructure across the US that connects physicians, scientists, and the entire healthcare ecosystem in an integrated and speedy manner. The network is designed to be connected to sequencing centers so doctors could receive near-instantaneous genome sequencing and analysis of patients’ DNA. By making medical information sharing more intelligent, Soon-Shiong hopes to eliminate misdiagnosed cancers. While others have attempted to digitize individual parts of healthcare, such as medical records, Soon-Shiong is working to bring the entire healthcare industry up to speed at once.

In a breakout session, a venture capitalist mentioned that the atmosphere was “more bullish” than years past, and indeed, the IPO window for biotech companies appears open, though some panelists expressed concern about how long this will last. In a session titled “Finding the Money: Where to Look and What Sells” (click here for PDF of conference program), panelists from several VC firms spoke of the difficulty in raising new funds. While limited partners used to allocate a portion of their investment toward life science funds, they now invest only with VCs that have a strong track record of providing returns. Another panelist and investor mentioned that VCs are less concerned about where startups have raised money from in the past, and that VCs no longer make distinctions between “good money” and “bad money.”

In the “Funding Collaborations between Pharma and Traditional VC funds” session, VC and pharma representatives discussed their expanding relationship. Traditional VCs are generally seeking purely financial returns, but corporate VCs can also have strategic goals, such as acquiring drugs for their pharma sponsor’s pipeline. This desire for access to good molecules (as well as pharma’s deep pockets), allows corporate VCs to sometimes fund beyond traditional VCs.

In the “Pharmaceutical Business Development Investing” session, panelists mentioned that they see far too many drug reformulations and want to see more innovative therapeutics. Pharma representatives involved in academic outreach mentioned they like collaborators who have a deep understanding of the biology behind diseases, as well as a roadmap for clinical trials.

For the entrepreneurs, the sessions in the “Life Science Speed Dating: Finding the Diamond Ring from VC and Pharma” track allowed two-minute pitches for select companies, with the winner chosen via audience applause. The two-minute timeline proved challenging for many, and the entrepreneurs who delivered refined pitches attributed it to practice. Industry panelists from each session gave valuable feedback to the entrepreneurs giving pitches.

As students, the conference gave us insight into the workings of the biotech industry and perspective on how our scientific training fits into the greater scheme of things. We’re looking forward to CALBIO 2014.

Gene Kym

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