Opinion | The Podium

BIO convention — or travel show?

New York tries to lure biotech companies to its state during the BIO conference in Boston.
New York tries to lure biotech companies to its state during the BIO conference in Boston.(Rob Anderson)

After spending a day wandering around the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention this week, I left Boston’s cavernous convention center with two impressions. First, any conference with the word “technology” in its name should have reliable wireless Internet connection for its attendees (although the fact that this one didn’t is a knock against the convention center, not the convention itself. Mayor Menino?) Second, I left the convention itching to get out of Boston.

I imagine the bulk of the conference’s estimated 17,000 attendees felt the same way, because the gathering, which ends today, seems designed to elicit that reaction. With every other booth advertising a different location — some exciting (Rio! Hawaii!), and some less so (Nebraska, Delaware) — the floor felt more like a convention for upcoming honeymooners than anything having to do with science or technology.


In total, 34 countries and 24 US states (including Puerto Rico) exhibited. Their booths were the biggest and brightest. Korea imported a pagoda. Illinois set up a man cave, with endless bottles of beer and ESPN on big screen televisions. Holland raffled bikes. Nebraska served steaks. At one point Hong Kong unleashed a parade of dragon dancers and drums down the aisles.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the bling. That was just the hook. Each place came prepared with statistics and arguments in hopes of luring the biotech industry to its borders. “The world-class powerhouse in high-tech breakthroughs invites you to build your future in New York State,” read one banner. New Jersey crowned itself “the global hub for life sciences,” pointing out on a flier that it is “highly educated” and “perfectly located.”

Something about reading those pitches here, in Boston — which, by the way, is also known as both a world-class powerhouse in high-tech breakthroughs and a global hub for life sciences — felt jarring. During every other week of the year, Boston tries to nab resources from competing cities in a quest to gain more talent, more companies, more students, and more entrepreneurs. There’s an entire Innovation District that still needs to be filled, after all. This week, on the other hand, Boston invited 17,000 visitors to town to help convince them to go elsewhere.


The BIO convention wasn’t always about location, location, location, says veteran industry reporter Ronald Rosenberg, who once covered the industry for the Globe. A half decade ago, the conference “used to be a whole lot of small biotech companies who were struggling to get the word out,” Rosenberg told me. This year, it was “much more about economic development” with “different countries and states extolling the virtues of what they can offer those companies.” This year, “science and technology took a backseat,” he added.

To Rosenberg, however, this emphasis shows how far the biotech industry has come: Once, its annual gathering was needed to boost its own profile. Now, outside industries are lining up to boost their profile among biotech companies and leaders. In other words, it’s a sign of the industry’s growing maturity.

But that maturity was difficult for this outsider to grasp. On the day I attended, it was easy to pinpoint the exact moment when the conference transformed into a gathering nominally about science and technology to simply just a gathering about gathering. At 4:55 p.m., a voice over the loudspeaker announced that “the hospitality receptions are now open. And everyone is invited.”


In less than a minute, the room resembled a late-night wedding reception. Crowds surged before chafing dishes. “Where’d you get that beer?” shouted a young man across the aisle to a young woman who had just stumbled in her stilettos. “Texas!” she replied. “I haven’t even made it to Belgium yet,” whooped another.

I had been to the convention center only once before, to attend the joint New England Food Show and the International Boston Seafood Show. I can say with 100 percent certainty that every bite of food I noshed at the BIO conference was better than anything I ate at either of those food shows.

Parisians nibbled cheese in France, Midwestern looking suits enhaled lobster mac and cheese in Hawaii. Earlier in the day, Turkey had had a rather lackluster booth, but it took top prize in the hospitality department. Freshly grilled chicken kabobs. Piles of salmon. Hummus. Live music added a nice touch.

In fact, it reminded of a trip I’ve been meaning to plan — Istanbul is supposed to be beautiful in the spring. I looked up flights later that night.

Rob Anderson writes regularly for the Globe’s editorial page.