SAN FRANCISCO — Hour after hour, from early morning until the sun slips behind the hills, a parade of eager biotechnology entrepreneurs comes to court the industry heavyweight from back East that has set up camp at the Hotel Nikko.
They bear business cards, Powerpoint presentations, and rosy projections of success. They hope to persuade the Cambridge-based drug maker Biogen Idec Inc. — which vaulted to the top ranks of global biotechs over the past year by doubling its market value to $64 billion — to invest in their experimental medicines, license their drug candidates, or even buy a chunk of their start-ups.
Ushered into a suite with three colleagues, the leader of a West Coast biotech passes out printed copies of his pitch to Biogen Idec executives and declares, “We want to build a relationship.”
Translation: We need to be associated with one of the hottest biotechnology companies on the planet.
It’s been that way all week for Biogen Idec — and for dozens of other companies from Massachusetts’s mushrooming biotech cluster — at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. The annual meeting has drawn a record 8,500 executives and investors to the area around Union Square. Thousands more spend their time outside the official conference in nonstop rounds of private meetings and networking events that have become a kind of Rorschach test of who is seen as having the power to make things happen in the biopharmaceutical business.
“Much of the action is not taking place in the public presentations,” deadpanned Steve Holtzman, Biogen Idec’s executive vice president for corporate development.
Biogen Idec’s sales jumped 21 percent during the first nine months of 2013 on the strength of its US launch of the multiple sclerosis pill Tecfidera, which quickly became the market leader in oral MS treatments.
The company has about 6,800 employees worldwide, including 2,800 in Massachusetts, where it hired over 400 workers last year. It also moved corporate headquarters back to Kendall Square from suburban Weston.
It is a remarkable turnaround.
Four years ago, when then-chief executive James C. Mullen resigned under pressure from activist investor Carl C. Icahn, it was widely feared Biogen Idec would be broken up and sold. That tends to happen whenever Icahn starts buying up a company’s stock.
Since then, under new chief executive George A. Scangos, Biogen Idec has refocused on MS and other neurological treatments, brought Tecfidera to market, purchased the remaining stake Ireland’s Elan PLC held in the powerful MS drug Tysabri, and enjoyed torrid revenue growth. Its newly lofty market value puts it in an elite club with industry giants such as Amgen Inc., Celgene Corp., and Gilead Sciences Inc.
“Biogen’s had quite a renaissance,” said Glen Giovannetti, Boston-based global biotechnology leader for the accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young. “They’ve had a heck of a year.”
For startups, forging a relationship with Biogen Idec can raise their profiles, provide an infusion of much-needed cash to continue drug research and development, and allow access to the larger company’s sales force and deep well of expertise.
The benefits for Biogen Idec include new drugs to keep its pipeline of products filled, and the money such treatments could generate.
Other life sciences companies, including several in Massachusetts, also saw their stocks surge in 2013. Share prices climbed more than 60 percent at Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Lexington, over 70 percent at Boston’s Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., and more than doubled at Boston Scientific Corp. of Natick.
A report released last summer by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council listed the state as the leading biotechnology cluster in the world, with more than 56,000 jobs — over half in research — and 1,174 drugs under development.
The Massachusetts presence has been felt everywhere at the J.P. Morgan conference.
A surprise Monday morning announcement that Cambridge-based Genzyme was spending $700 million to buy a chunk of another Cambridge biotech, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., set the tone for a conference rife with alliances and partnership deals.
At a Monday night reception hosted by MassBio and the Boston law firm Foley Hoag, business people from across the nation jammed into the basement of Morton’s steak house to talk deals — and the Patriots’ chances of getting past the Broncos — with Massachusetts leaders who had made the cross-country trek.
Scangos’s presentation drew more than 500 investors into the Grand Ballroom of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, one of the largest crowds of the conference. Biogen Idec is awaiting regulatory decisions on three new drugs in 2014, he told them, and plans to release data from clinical studies from as many as nine experimental treatments.
Yet another Biogen Idec MS drug could come to the market this year, along with two other medicines that treat the rare bleeding disorder hemophilia. Those would be the company’s first offerings in that long-neglected market.
“We intend to become the leading company in the treatment of hemophilia,” Scangos said.