Going For The Gold

BIO Universe comes to Georgia this month, when Atlanta hosts the BIO International Convention.

Atlanta will be the center of the biotech universe this month when it hosts the BIO International Convention, May 18-21, at the Georgia World Congress Center. If there were an Olympics for the global life sciences industry, this would be it.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has been holding the event for 17 years, typically in industry hotbeds such as Boston and San Diego. But this one, the first in the Southeast, could be the most significant yet, coming at a time when biotech is facing unprecedented challenges.

“For many of our participants this event will have greater importance than at any other time because of the economic challenges we’re facing,” says Jim Greenwood, BIO’s president and CEO, and a former U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania. “There’s greater incentive than ever before to be here.”

The economic crisis hit the high-risk biotech industry hard last year as cash-starved companies struggled to find funding in the midst of a global credit crunch. But Georgia leaders are betting that the convention will be a catalyst for growth in the life sciences sector.

“This is a capstone on our immediate strategy of enhancing the bioscience industry,” says Ken Stewart, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD). “This is the world’s largest gathering of the global biotech community, so we see this as a super opportunity to showcase the many assets we have.”

Those include leading research institutions such as Georgia Tech and Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquarters of the American Cancer Society and existing businesses, such as multibillion dollar drug companies, Solvay and UCB.

Expanding the Footprint

“This is an expansion of BIO’s footprint beyond its traditional bastions, and what we’re hoping for is a magnificent meeting that will rotate through Atlanta on a regular basis,” says Russell Medford, CEO and co-founder of Atlanta-based AtheroGenics, and a BIO board member who helped bring the event to Georgia.

Ironically, AtheroGenics, which has been developing drug therapy for diabetes and heart disease, won’t be exhibiting its work – it is in the midst of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.

“What we are going through is indicative of the economic and financial crisis that has affected the entire world,” Medford says. “To be sure, these are challenging times, which makes this year’s convention more important than ever. This event is huge for our state and the Southeast.”

Georgia state government is a $300,000 “double helix” sponsor. GDEcD and Georgia Allies – a partnership between state government and the private sector – is spending another $1 million on the event, matching the $1 million raised by Georgia BIO, the organization that promotes the state’s life sciences industry.

“The state’s commitment is critical to the success of the industry and this convention,” says Charlie Craig, president of Georgia BIO.

Craig and other leaders from government and industry had been predicting 20,000 or more attendees from 48 states and 60 nations would converge on Atlanta. This includes representatives from drug and medical device companies, biofuel companies, researchers, investors, physicians, attorneys and policymakers. The Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau forecast a direct economic impact of about $29 million.

The 2007 event in Boston drew a record 22,366. Last year’s convention in San Diego drew 20,108. And the steep economic decline of the past year or so has prompted a little more sobering outlook for this year’s convention.

“The last figure I heard was that we might still get 17,000,” says Emory President James Wagner, a member of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) board, which hosted BIO chief Green-wood at a January meeting.

“He seemed a little worried,” Wagner says. Greenwood, admittedly anxious, asked the board for its help in promoting the event, reporting that registration was down 69 percent and hotel bookings were down 40 percent from the same time a year earlier.

“The numbers may be down somewhat this year, but what I can say with confidence is, this is a unique opportunity for Georgia to bring the top decision makers in the industry to our doorstep,” Craig says.

BIO International is considered a must for most of the world’s life sciences companies, Craig says – the one place where so much of the industry is represented at one time, in one place.

More than 2,000 companies will have their latest products and discoveries on display on the 200,000 square-foot exhibition floor, including a number of Georgia firms.

Visitors can choose from breakout sessions covering, among other things, virtually every facet of business development; clinical research; food and agriculture; drug and device development; environmental, legal and regulatory issues; finance, technology and licensing issues.

The convention also features high-profile keynote speakers. U.S. presidents, royalty and movie stars have done this in the past – Elton John will address the 2009 gathering. And BIO will organize more than 14,000 partnering meetings among companies, re-searchers and investors.

Golden Opportunity

Greenwood says the convention presents a golden opportunity for mergers and acquisitions, and new partnerships between small, early-stage companies and/or large, established pharmaceutical firms.

“They need to be there, because they’re all worried about jobs and the economy and recognize that there is no field with more potential to grow jobs at this time than biotech,” Greenwood says. “There’s greater incentive than ever before to be there.”

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue will have plenty of incentive to be there, as BIO’s Governor of the Year for 2009.

“He’s been very generous with state sponsorship of our event, this year and last year in San Diego,” Greenwood says. “We think he’s a visionary. Gov. Perdue gets it.”

Nonetheless, Perdue seems an ironic choice for the honor, given his opposition to stem cell research. The governor also planned to cut $5 million from the $7.5 million Georgia Seed Fund, a successful early-stage funding program for tech start-ups, which has attracted about $25 from outside investment for every $1 spent by the state, a conspicuous move at a time when the “valley of death” — the gulf between discovery and commercialization – has only gotten wider for early-stage companies.

“If the state of Georgia wants to be in this game, and I know that it does, it needs to be adding funding to these early stage companies,” Greenwood says.

Georgia may be far behind such bioscience industry leaders as California, Massachusetts and North Carolina; but by all accounts, this state definitely is in the game, with $16 billion in sales (2007), 62,000 jobs in the life sciences (companies, universities, government agencies, etc.), multibillion dollar international firms, such as animal-health company Merial, and some of the world’s leading innovation centers, including Georgia Tech’s $80 million Marcus Nanotechnol-ogy Research Center, which held its official grand opening in April.

Hosting the BIO International Con-vention, even in a down year, puts Georgia in the biotech industry spotlight.

“BIO expects this to be a huge, successful event, even though the numbers may be lower for this year,” says Eric Tomlinson, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Altea Therapeutics, and a member of the BIO board. “The attention of the world will be on Atlanta.

“For this event to be located here says a lot about Georgia.”

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