J.P. Morgan Goes Virtual as Key Companies Back Out

JP Morgan_Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images

Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, J.P. Morgan Chase finally put an end to the uncertainty surrounding its annual health care conference, announcing that the 40th edition will be moving to a virtual format. 

On Tuesday, news broke that Amgen, Moderna and Sarepta Therapeutics would not be in attendance either. Face-to-face encounters with Roche and Novartis execs wouldn't have happened either, as both companies planned to attend virtually this year. As Roche spokesperson Nathalie Meetz told BioSpace, “After carefully weighing the benefits and risks of attending the conference in-person, and with the safety and health of our employees and partners as a top priority, we decided to attend JPM 2022 virtually.”

Even before J.P. Morgan's decision, which the investment firm made "out of an abundance of caution," according to e-mails obtained by CNBC, the sentiment had been trending toward a virtual preference. 

“Last year was very productive regarding deals, so we don’t see a reason to stress the system,” Reza Mazhari, Ph.D., head of search and evaluation, North America, business development and licensing, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), said during the BIO webinar. Given all the uncertainties, “We will remain virtual (for partnering meetings) for now.”

Ignacio Guerrero-Ros, Ph.D., senior account executive at Russo Partners, LLC, spelled out the indecision in an earlier interview with BioSpace. 

“The reality of this year’s conference is a mixed bag of undecided intentions from both the media and the healthcare industry," he said. 

The decision of whether to attend factored in who else would be in and around the Union Square venue, COVID concerns and the high cost to attend for those outside the San Francisco area. Add in the city’s crime rate, and many were having second thoughts about attending. Tellingly, two weeks before Christmas, rooms were still available in the Union Square area – including at the Westin St. Francis – for less than $2,000 per night. 

“Companies will come if they believe investors and, possibly, strategic partners are there, and bankers will come if companies are there. The more of that ecosystem that decides to go, the more pressure it puts on others to come, lest they miss out,” Hany Awadalla, managing director, investment banking for LifeSci Capital, told BioSpace. 

For many, the decision to attend was hinging on who else will be there. “Will there be enough people to meet in person?” Kleem Chaudhary, Ph.D., chief business officer, Checkmate Pharmaceuticals, asked during the recent BIO webinar, “Leveraging JPM Week to Achieve Business Development Goals.” He’s focused on meeting big pharma players who could be powerful partners.

Attending virtually was looking like a smart decision. “Considering how quickly the industry is embracing new technologies and platforms, as well as the always looming possibility of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant such as Omicron, keeping these meetings virtual seems like the right decision, for now,” Guerrero-Ros said.

“Besides the reduction in travel expenditures, a virtual setting avoids the usually hectic and time-consuming activities that J.P. Morgan Week is known for,” he continued. “It forces all attendees, journalists, companies and investors to really consider what meetings need to be held in-person, to begin with.”

During the past nearly two years, companies have learned that virtual meetings can be both productive and cost-effective. As Philipp Spycher, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Araris, told BioSpace, partnering and collaborating in a virtual environment “works surprisingly well.” They’re not ideal though. “It takes longer to build a relationship in a virtual setting than when face-to-face,” Spycher added. Virtual meetings, therefore, may need to be more frequent, he suggested.

There are drawbacks, however.

“Virtual meetings make it so much tougher to read subtle cues, cultivate friendships and build the trust that ultimately allows us to close deals,” Brad Margus, CEO of Cerevance, told BioSpace. “It takes a focused effort to connect one-to-one on the side more regularly and to allow time during video calls for social chats rather than just diving into the business agenda.”

Therefore, Margus continued, “I think we’ll do everything we can to come together in places like San Francisco again as soon as possible. But right now, we’re still hesitant about safety and just haven’t reached the tipping point yet where everyone feels that they HAVE to be there.”

Yet, many say virtual technologies have changed partnering meetings forever. At Roche, “In the long-run, the current situation will certainly make us think differently about how we are running discussions and negotiations at congresses, with our colleagues and partners, and how a reality with more virtual conversations and less traveling/face-to-face meetings will be feasible as a standard scenario,” Meetz said.

Nonetheless, she continued, “We believe conferences like JPM will keep their importance, as JPM brings the key stakeholders across the industry together.” While virtual meetings have many positives, “The coincidental meetings in a coffee shop or in a corridor at the conference cannot be replicated virtually, thus decreasing the serendipitous moments that can sometimes be key to kicking-off or nourishing partnering conversations. We believe sustainable innovation is fostered by interpersonal relations outside of a meeting room,” Meetz said.

The interpersonal connections that emerge from face-to-face meetings contribute to stronger relationships, which are important for successful alliances, Jason Laffin, co-head, partnering & analytics for LifeSci Partners, told BioSpace. “We’ve discussed this with our business development & licensing leaders and come to the conclusion that the virtual conferences seem to be wearing a bit thin.”

In-person conferences, therefore, are likely to remain important. “Conferences are a relatively efficient way to get the whole ecosystem (in the case of JPM) or a relatively broad swath of the ecosystem (in the case of some other conferences) in one place for a relatively long period of time,” Awadalla added. “There may be fewer large gatherings, but the opportunity to serendipitously make connections and introductions is simply impossible with virtual conference calls, and much of what happens at these conferences is informal interactions,” he stressed.

Ultimately, Guerrero-Ros said, “The need for personal interaction in certain settings and the informal networking opportunities provided by in-person meetings will drive these meetings partially back to in-person events, but the world has been permanently changed by COVID-19.” Hybrid partnering events, therefore, are here to stay.

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