This year I attended Big Data World in London and BioData World Congress in Basel. The parallels were striking. Both were a contradiction. The underlying markets for data analytics and new pharma treatments are experiencing massive upticks in demand; and yet the attendance numbers at the conferences were down significantly from when they were last held.
The organisers are hoping this is a temporary change in behaviour due to COVID 19 and a general risk aversion. The alternative explanation, that the exhibition business model may need to respond to a permanent change in customer attitudes, would be worrying. After 18 months of Zoom meetings, meeting potential clients on a virtual platform and only following up face-2-face when there is an opportunity that both partners are committed to, is now conceivable. Would attendees pay approximately Euro 1,000 for such a virtual event?
So, back to the business context “The Roaring 2020’s for Pharma”. Every indicator of company health has turned positive for the Pharma sector. After more than a decade of being unfashionable with investors, COVID has transformed pharma revenues and valuations since 2020. Pfizer sales from their vaccine have been $36 billion, which is nearly twice the second ranked treatment (which is for arthritis).
Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the two winners of the COVID vaccine race have surged more than 20% on the stock markets (AstraZeneca is now the most valuable company on the FTSE 100) and a group of other Pharma companies (Merck, J&J, etc.) are profiting from the fact that COVID is becoming endemic and therefore there is time to develop a second wave of products for treatments to fight the virus or increase the length of effectiveness of antibodies. The new Merck treatment, Malnupiravir which reduces the hospitalisation and mortality rates of the COVID infected is forecast to sell $7 billion in its first year after release.
While the market for Pharma products has massively increased, the technology for the development of new products is being transformed by Genomics. Roche has placed huge bets on the value of Genome research. The Genomic promise of producing “better” (more personalised), “faster” treatments (the development cycle is “faster”) and “cheaper”, is the same mantra that has driven the success of Tech industry.
Is Pharma the Tech industry of the 2020’s? Certainly, if the Pharma companies can hold the line on IP protection, then one or two treatments a year might be comparable to iPhones in their cash generation.
So, given this business background, why was BioData World Congress so badly attended?
First, who did attend? My observation, (not confirmed by the organisers, Terrapin,) was that about 50% of the people I met and spoke to were marketing or sales representatives from other vendor companies. Vendors retain their belief in conferences, or perhaps we are just slow learners.
The obvious answer only occurred to me when I got back to the U.K. and started reading newspaper reports on the 4th Wave of COVID sweeping through Germany, Austria and Central Europe.
In the U.K. fewer people are wearing masks, and COVID passports are not required in England, life has returned to normal. If we want to go somewhere, a pub, a restaurant, an office, a nightclub, we go there.
Meanwhile, Austria reintroduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated in Austria and Bavaria is sending COVID patients to hospitals in Northern Italy as their wards are full. For Brits COVID is now just an inconvenience, not a crisis. Maybe, as a Brit, I have lost sight of how COVID has affected people’s behaviour where it is still a serious health challenge.
On balance therefore I agree with Terrapin, conferences are valuable events for end-users and vendors to attend, which have been disrupted by COVID. It is still the case that nowhere else will there be a gathering of executives, interesting technologies, and presentations on interesting use cases than there is at an industry specific event such as the BioData World Congress.
So COVID19 is driving growth for Pharma companies and recession for event organisers. I thank the Pharma companies for the success of their vaccines and hope Europe recovers fast.