It’s not you, it’s me: Adventures in partnering at biotech conferences

Psyché et l’Amour, François Gérard, 1798
Maude Tessier, PhD, is assistant director of business development and strategic initiatives in the Technology and Innovation Development Office at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her role is to initiate, develop and realize alliances between Boston Children’s and industry partners. She tweets from @maude_tessier.)

I log on to the Web portal with excitement and set up my profile. I browse for potential matches, reading though all their interests to see if they match my own. I send out requests to meet face to face. I wait. Have I received favorable responses? Were my short email invite and profile enticing enough? Is my dance card getting full?

It’s not a dating website, but rather the prelude to a biotech business partnering conference. In my role as a leader of business development and marketing efforts at Boston Children’s Technology and Innovation Development Office, my objective is to quickly and effectively pitch our most promising work to industry contacts, in hopes of continuing conversations after the conference is over. Attending these conferences is a great way to “break the ice”—and it is key to my success in building relationships and developing partnerships and alliances with life sciences companies.

I liken it to speed and online dating combined.

At last month’s Biotechnology International Organization (BIO) conference, I skipped a series of interesting talks on the agenda and devoted my time to the “Business Forum.” Using the forum’s software platform, I had prearranged 30-minute meetings with 30 different companies with which I saw an opportunity to do business.

Each meeting took place in a tiny temporary meeting room on the exhibit hall floor. Picture a maze of hundreds of unflatteringly lit rooms—about 8 feet by 12 feet—with grey walls, one table, four chairs, a garbage can and a black curtain for a door. They’re organized in rows and arranged in alphabetical and numerical order. For some people this is reminiscent of a recurring nightmare: What if I miss an important, life-changing event because I can’t find the right room? For me, this maze represents the main draw of these conferences: business opportunities waiting to be capitalized on.

In all, over three days, the forum hosted a staggering 25,573 partnering meetings involving 2,800 companies. Despite the grueling schedule, miles of walking, vocal strain and financial/budgetary constraints faced by all the participants, these meetings are on the up.

Why? Because they work.

In this age of Web technology and video conferencing, there’s still no substitute for an efficient face-to-face discussion with a potential partner, especially when it comes to collaborations, alliances and co-development relationships. As much as business deals are rooted in intellectual property assets and in financials, at the end of the day the people factor matters most.

Just like speed dating, not all connections are positive. As one of my colleagues from another institution remarked after a meeting that the participants voluntarily shortened to five minutes, “That was a miss.” (For a fun take on this, search Twitter for #biobreakuplines and its steamy opposite, #biopickuplines.)

My philosophy is to turn these speed-dating duds into networking hits. There might not be a fit between Company X and Boston Children’s right now, but who knows? Companies change their business strategies regularly. And with 13,594 industry leaders in attendance at BIO this year, everyone has an interesting story to tell. I can always use the time to ask about the delegate’s career trajectory. Most likely, I will cross paths with this person in the future, and by then he or she may have moved to a more compatible company.

And it takes some duds to find the right fits. I’ve been in meetings where the song or bell comes on (signaling that 25 minutes have elapsed), and I wish I could continue the meeting because I know something great is going to come out of this interaction. These few successes make the whole experience worth it. A number of lasting business relationships begin in these drab cubicles.

Once back home, follow-ups from these initial conversations continue for months. A few of these “dates” will lead to partnerships. And these partnerships create value—they help develop lifesaving technologies to benefit patients at our hospital and all patients worldwide.

TessierMaude-lgEd. Note: If you’re part of the biotechnology ecosystem and want to speed date with Maude to learn more about the innovations at Boston Children’s, email her at Maude.Tessier@childrens.harvard.edu.