ERBI 2009: Technology Networking and Peripheral Vision in Cambridge

The largest networking conference for European biotechs is hosted every summer by ERBI (acronyms tend to turn into names as they outgrow their original scope, and so it is with this one). The Cambridge BioPartnering Exchange. Participants were mainly UK-based, with a large number headquartered in and around Cambridge (where else, given the research, business, and cultural resources clustered on the banks of the Cam?). I had been invited to go along to chair a panel on emerging tech issues, and could hardly refuse. (Full disclosure: I am a Cambridge grad, so any excuse to visit home is appreciated.) And the Wellcome Trust set-up at Hinxton provides an excellent venue, and not only because of the ambient wifi (can anyone now run a serious professional event without it?).

A comment on the nature of the networking. I’m always interested in hanging out where worlds come together, and while this was a very biz-focused crowd it hosted many diversities – various internationals (especially Canadians, who were there in profusion), and a healthy cluster of CEOs, along with the biz dev types and the consultants who tend to pepper such gatherings. UKTI and consular tech people mingled with lawyers and a smattering of academics and networking leaders come to network their networks. My clutch of biz cards was I think representative: 5 out of 6 are on LinkedIn (mostly seriously, though a couple of people with two accounts and one actually with three – does that mean they are even more serious or less so?). Interestingly, almost all the LI people I connected with protect their own lists of connections. (I’ve never done that: love sharing old friends with new friends in our increasingly viral world.) And perhaps equally interestingly hardly anyone seemed to be on Twitter. Fiona Godsman (@fiona_godsman for those who know what that means!) and I gamely tweeted into the ether from time to time at #ERBI09, but without a lot of chums. It will be interesting to see if projecting a hashtag page during conference sessions catches on at events like this; and the extent to which it energizes rather than simply distracts from the presentations. It will certainly make them more responsive and engaged (in the same way as prohibiting PowerPoint, or limiting it to 3 slides, as some conferences do). Just some suggestions.

Our panel was focused on personalized medicine and other future developments – an opportunity for the kind of general discussion that most sessions did not permit. In my intro I was asked to explain something about the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET), and it set the context for the kind of interdisciplinary and wide-ranging discussion that should intersperse all our focused and necessarily narrow engagement with technical, commercial, ethical, and other issues. The reason is simple: the speed of change is so great that no-one can any longer be merely a specialist. Which is not to say that we can be merely generalists either. Perhaps a good model of an achievable aim is specialism at one level or another, plus excellent peripheral vision. So industry people can talk to finance people and policy people and ethics people and technology experts, and have enough overlap that they are really communicating. “Personalized medicine,” whether it is the Holy Grail or not, is a great example of the kind of issue that will yield only to that kind of discussion. Part of the value of panels like this at high-level professional/business conferences is to encourage those in attendance to “get peripheral” in the way they think. Peripherality, as it were, is no longer peripheral; it emerges as a key driver of success – especially when times are a-changing and paradigms a-fracturing. From the discussions I had with dozens of ERBI-ites, things don’t look bad at all from this perspective. The somewhat diminished attendance at our session owed as much to its timing (late afternoon) as its topic, though in general peripherality is not valued as it should be. (In the academic world, the equivalent attitude – spouted in response to almost any collaborative or novel project – is “how will this help me get tenure?”)

So I emphasized the importance of anticipatory discussion; of cross-sectoral discussion; and of mainstreaming the discussion since the more potentially transformative the question (and biotech, neuro, AI and other items we touched on are vastly so) the better prepared everyone has to be – even if we see “everyone” in terms only of markets and regulatory environments. Both stem ultimately from people’s understanding and tolerances. As it happens, greater “peripherality” among experts and leaders helps us all learn the language in which we can engage the people out there – not just the people in here – and develop a common grammar.

Our three expert panelists showed how good experts can get be at communicating across the lines. Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neurophysiology at Cambridge and a leader in her field, set the pace by summing up her own research on diagnosing dementia and related themes. She pointed out what enormous sums could be saved if therapies could put off the onset of Alzheimer’s by even one year. Kieran Breen, former pharmacy lecturer at Dundee and now R and D Director of the Parkinson’s Disease Society, offered a patient’s-eye view, and reviewed many aspects of the prospect of personalized medicine (personal medical plans, the 5% of inherited factors, stem cells, gene therapy, neuro implants). Harald Schmidt, Assistant Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics – the UK’s de facto national bioethics body – reviewed their extensive work on the implications of the paradigm shift towards personalization – including the marketing of products to patients.

In discussion this all went a little further. What fundamental shifts in healthcare delivery might result? How do we cope with hyped expectations, with growing public enthusiasm for “cures” that may prove much harder to deliver than they believe? with threats to the public funding of science (and healthcare) in the unfolding economic climate? with broader issues such as intellectual property and developing world pressure for resource equity? As with all the best discussions, it ended with hands still in the air.

So thank you, ERBI, for the invitation, and to ERBI’s new leader Harriet Fear, whose debut event went swimmingly. Let’s keep encouraging peripheral vision to power discussion across sectors, and long-term strategic reflection in a context in which the next quarter and the next funding tranche tend to focus the mind too wonderfully. If all the talk about the “biotech” century” and technological convergence and exponential improvements in health is more than dubious hype and rhetoric, that’s the only way to go.

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