In January, there’s JPM, and in June, there’s the BIO International convention. Both meetings are marquee events for the biotech industry, with the former focusing on investors/company meetings, and the latter a true-to-form convention. 

BIO 2024 was held in San Diego, and saw nearly 18,000 industry professionals, investors, journalists and others flock to the city's gigantic convention center. Over four days, life science professionals met in business development booths, hallways, the exhibition hall, or at any of the three Starbucks in the conference hall. 

Back in January, John Kang reported that the attitude of the industry at JPM was one of cautious optimism. The year 2023 was rough for the industry. But there was hope that 2024 would fare much better. With six months of the year gone, BIO is a good indicator as to whether the optimists were correct.

Everyone wants life sciences in their backyard

Life science is cutting edge, and everyone wants in on it. BIO was a festival of booths from countries the world over – my personal favorites being Australia and Brazil – and states and cities across the U.S. A fun activity at the conference was talking to the representatives at the booths, and learning about what biotech is like in their parts of the world and where they hoped it would go.

The variety was diverse, spanning from newly minted economic projects, in places such as Phoenix and Oklahoma, to well-developed ecosystems, such as those in California and the UK. The booths provided a glimpse into the character of each hub as well. Phoenix showed photos of construction sites and 3D renders of gleaming facilities that shouted, “Look what’s almost here!” Belgium preferred to set up small tables with individual companies advertising their services or technologies. Japan took a quieter approach by simply hanging scientific posters around their booth – letting the data speak for itself. Meanwhile, Australia turned to geography to show how widespread their life science activities were by organizing their booth by province.

No matter what the presentation, the common thread between all of them was clear – strengthening supply chains to be better connected to the rest of the world (and be an alternative to China for U.S. companies seeking contract research or manufacturing partners) and a focus on oncology as a driver of overall progress and innovation for the aspiring biotech hubs.

Neuropsych makes a comeback

Oncology programs comprise 45 percent of the entire industry’s drug pipeline. In second place, at 10 percent, is neuropsychiatry. While the 35 percentage point difference may cause the uninitiated to write off neuropsych as a sleepier space than oncology, the reality is far different. In fact, being the second-most represented category is a huge victory for psychiatry, and, of course, patients. 

In the later 2010s, big pharma began pausing and ending psychiatry R&D due to a constant string of failures. For a better part of the decade, neuropsychiatry was an underinvested space, with many of the therapies patients relied on being a woefully poor standard of care. 

However, over the past few years, the space has seen a surge of activity led by startups who have created better technologies, discovered far more efficient drugs – in some cases, even taking drugs from pharma’s dusty shelves – and understand how to design clinical trials for the unique challenges of neuropsychiatry. These companies have gone back to the drawing board to figure out fundamentals such as selecting patients with accurate diagnoses, structuring trials to minimize the placebo effects, and finding new mechanisms of action that directly address the root of the disease, and how the brain even works. 

With their efforts, there are promising advances being put through the paces in clinical trials, with some succeeding in getting FDA approval. The rest of the industry is noticing this activity. And, if all goes well, we could have a drastically different standard of care for diseases such as major depressive disorder in a few years.

AI is still strong, for now

Although it seems trite at this point, ChatGPT started a craze in biotech and other industries of incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into every facet of business nearly two years ago. The luster of AI seems to be fading in consumer circles. But, in biotech and life sciences, the excitement is still real.

A large number of panels organized at the conference were related to AI in some form, touting its applications in bettering drug discovery, connecting remote teams to each other, or making sense of multi-omic data gathered by the terabyte each day. Each panel was met with a full room of interested listeners – and, in many cases, a full overflow of listeners.

However, the recent disappointment in AI for non-life sciences applications – with an example being the backlash over just how much AI was used for Amazon’s just-walk-out technology – will inevitably spread over to our industry. But if NVIDIA’s stock success is any barometer, it will take some time before we get there.

Say no to partnering

One of the prevailing narratives of 2023 was that as investors tightened their grips on capital, biotechs had to turn to pharma to extend their cash runway. This involved either pursuing mergers and acquisitions, collaborative drug development partnerships, or licensing agreements.

At BIO, CEOs of successful M&A deals of 2023 were in vocal opposition to collaborations with pharmaceutical companies. They posited that pharma partnerships distract internal teams from the work that they would have done to develop and improve a company’s fundamental line of business, such as advancing wholly owned pipeline programs and improving proprietary technology platforms. The level of distraction and disruption involved with the upkeep of a pharma partnership can last years, from even before a deal is signed – such as doing due diligence, conducting product testing, etc. – and up to the completion of the program, including thousands of hours of research and clinical work.

This sentiment was also echoed by other speakers and experts at BIO, who advocated for a company to remain independent for as long as possible. Rather than pursue multiple partnerships with the hope or intent of being acquired, these executives argue that a more preferable approach is for a company to retain a strong focus on itself and its business, which makes for a stronger company, or a more attractive acquisition target, if it so chooses.

The only problem with steering clear of any pharma partnership is the reliance on investors for capital. For that, sticking to the fundamentals is a good start: having a clear value proposition, a clear solution to a real problem plaguing the industry or patients, and a clear platform to tell your story.

Closing thoughts

While 2024 hasn’t been a roaring success of a year for biotech like 2019, the industry is faring much better than it did last year. There is still a good deal of faith and excitement in life sciences and biotech, whether from the industry, itself, investors or governments. Cautious optimists can cautiously mark this as a win.