SAN FRANCISCO — The mating call at this week’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference was actually a phrase — “meet you under the clock,” referring to the large hanging timepiece in the elegant lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel.
It was a constant gathering place at the only annual conference that brings together every biotech industry kingpin and dealmaker for four days. But once the sun set, a rendezvous under the clock became merely a jumping off point to a potpourri of private receptions. They included wine tastings and corporate parties at hotels, art galleries, and other venues across the city for the thousands of bigwigs who attend the conference every year.
At those after-hours events, it was easy to spot Boston-area medical technology chieftains arriving in chauffeured limousines. You could hear lawyers and bankers talking in hushed tones about preparing S-1’s — the documents that launch initial public offerings. And you could see young guns from venture-backed startups sipping Napa Valley pinot noir as they listened to more seasoned executives from big pharma grouse about the regulators who approve their medicines and devices.
For many, the round of evening gatherings was simply an extension of the nonstop networking at the heart of this week’s conference, which drew more than 8,500 biotech and health care executives.
“Tonight it’s only two parties for me,” said Joye Marie Leventhal, chief business development officer from British biotech Global Acorn Advanced Therapies as she entered the Old US Mint building, a columned Greek Revival structure, for an invitation-only reception hosted by the drug giants AstraZeneca and MedImmune.
Inside, hundreds of biopharma bon vivants milled in a courtyard to drink cabernet and munch on short rib and kimchi tacos.
Elsewhere, the life sciences elite sipped Scotch at the BioCentury Distillery Reception in the Marriott, sampled the best of northern California wineries at the Feinstein Kean reception at the HangArt Gallery, and threw back beers and cocktails at the Pure Communications party in the basement of Slide’s, a Prohibition-era speakeasy where cases of bootleg whiskey were once delivered down a playground slide behind a secret wall.
At the bar at Blu, which shares space with a fitness club, a motley crew of journalists, day traders, and public relations practitioners from Edelman, the firm that played host, gathered for the “unofficial 2014 JPMorgan Conference Tweetup,” though no one was tweeting.
Waiters sashayed through the dense crowd in the basement of Morton’s, holding aloft trays of grilled steak hors d’oeuvres, courtesy of the Boston law firm Foley Hoag and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. While some of the loudest voices had Boston accents, they were joined by colleagues and guests from across the country.
“More fun stuff happens outside the conference, at least for me,” said Rajiv Mahadevan, chief executive of Applied Immunology Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif., company developing drugs and diagnostics. “I was at the bar upstairs and it was packed. I saw a guy who looked familiar and said, ‘Didn’t you hire me for the job I had four or five years ago?’ ”
“It’s a small network, when you get down to it,” said his associate Kerry Mahon, who said he just moved from Cambridge to Silicon Valley to take a job as the company’s business development director. “You know everyone’s going to be here in San Francisco this week, and so much of the conference takes place outside the conference.”
Nearby, chief executive Steve Axelrod said his Palo Alto, Calif., startup G-Tech Medical, was seeking funding to develop a medical device prototype. “We’re hoping to meet investors with a little bit of vision,” Axelrod said over the din.
Wellesley communications executive Doug MacDougall was just getting his second wind after rising before dawn to host a run up Telegraph Hill by about 40 biomedical executives, including many from Massachusetts. “It gets bigger every year,” he said of the J.P. Morgan fun run. “If it gets any bigger, we may have to get a permit.”
Near the bar, a group of executives from Lexington’s Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. talked about the irony of how many of the business development sessions they attended were with representatives of other Massachusetts companies.
“I’m meeting with people and they say, ‘We’re from Massachusetts, too,’ ” said Steve Gilman, the Cubist chief scientific officer. “But it’s just easier to do it out here.”