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Highlights of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference 2012

There’s never a better way to kick off a new year than to join the mobs descending on San Francisco for the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference — especially after a year that saw its ups and downs. The place was teeming with investors trying hard not to think of the European financial situation; with companies in search of funding; with industry leaders, insiders and observers of all stripes. And every one of them networking furiously. It’s biotech’s version of mass speed dating. At JP Morgan, if you don’t have an invite, you can still get in on the action. Lots of conversations happen on street corners, in wildly-packed hotel lobbies, and during receptions (over a glass or two) at some off-site venue.

Some of the highlights this year, official and not, included exciting announcements, progress on the Next Gen Sequencing front, and of course cost containment & acquisition plans for 2012.

Mixed news

First the good stuff. Noubar Afeyan, who was celebrating his nineteenth JP Morgan conference, looked jubilant after the announcement that Flagship Ventures closed Fund IV. At $270 million, Fund IV is the largest fund yet in the Flagship portfolio. Watching what he is doing with JOULE and with talented people like David Berry is just plain fun. Can’t wait to see how he spends his money. In more Flagship news, on Monday, one of Flagship’s portfolio companies that’s near and dear to my heart, BG Medicine, announced a new CEO: Eric Bouvier, PhD. It’s going to be an exciting place for Eric to be, as BG seems to be making true headway with its transformative galectin-3 and AMIPredict diagnostic tests.

Obviously, after a year like this, there was some gloom. Francis Collins named one of the elephants in the room, talking about decreased NIH funding (down significantly from nine years ago). The odds today are that new investigators only have a one in six chance of funding, as opposed to the one in three chance of years past. On the positive, Dr. Collins shared his excitementover the plethora of new discoveries made every day by scientists. He also described the objectives of the new NIH Institutes and the $140 million partnership between NIH and DARPA to develop a chip-based approach to drug toxicity testing. One growth area surely seems to be on the molecular diagnostics side, with Qiagen, Cepheid, Gen-Probe and others all launching new tests and/or platforms.

Next Gen Sequencing forging ahead

Another positive: As a big fan of the $1000 genome efforts, I was happy to hear about Life Technologies’ Proton Torrent announcement of the $1000 genome instrument. It was also great to see Illumina fired back with its instrument upgrade announcement. The latter was perhaps smaller news, but the larger story — that this is a technology space jumping with activity — is all good. One of the biggest buzzes seemed to be about the PacBio news that Hugh Martin is out and Mike Hunkapiller is now CEO. The word is that this is not as abrupt as it looks. Mike apparently has been working closely with the PacBio team for quite a while. And of course, Mike has a plan. We wish him the best of luck in his new capacity.

Tough 2011 but solid plans for 2012

Many of the presentations reflected just how tough last year was, with NIH grant scarcity and very cautious customers. But what struck me was how persistent, tough, and never-say-die this industry really is. Frank Witney, CEO of Affymetrix, gave his update about his company’s difficulties in the last half-year. Even with a 20% cut in R&D as a cost savings measure, however, he remains bullish about their CytoScan HD product.

Thermo also announced cost-savings programs. The $55M they save will offset reduced customer spending and NIH cuts. Perkin Elmer revealed that no new acquisitions will be made until they finish the Caliper Life Sciences integration. Fluidigm is focusing on expanding into new market segments including cell culture, molecular diagnostics, and protein expression as well as will be considering acquisitions in the future. All in all it seems that companies remain optimistic and continue to look for creative ways to be successful.

Taking a break On the personal side, one of the highlights of my JP experience this year was an unofficial Applied Biosystems (ABI) get-together that Linda Avey (cofounder of 23 & Me now CEO/founder of Curious, Inc) and I hastily planned. She’s something special, with entrepreneurial star power to spare and plenty of courage to shake things up. Makes me remember how fortunate I was to work with Linda and many of the others that were able to join us. What good friends I made: impressive professionals and wonderful people who work hard to make a difference in life sciences and human health.

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