Cover Story

From Boom to Bust and Back to Boom: BIO International

For the last decade, the biotech industry has ridden the economy’s highs and lows. How has the BIO International Convention survived and thrived? By evolving to give attendees lots more of what they’re looking for: business-partnering opportunities.


Keynoter Hillary Clinton called for more government support for biotech companies and gave a shout-out for genetically modified food. Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson offered a $25-million prize — Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge — for a breakthrough that would economically and sustainably remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

But the 15,000-plus attendees at the 2014 BIO International Convention, held at the San Diego Convention Center on June 23–26, the main attraction was not what was on stage, but what was across the table: potential business partners.

The three-day San Diego meetings included a record-breaking 29,000 one-on-one business-partnering meetings and reinforced the show’s position as a launch pad for business development in the surging biotech sector. With a rich mix of R&D companies, biotech startups, big pharma, business investors, universities, and economic-development agencies from around the world, BIO International has emerged as the leading global platform for making deals, finding funding, and advancing the commercial development of biotechnology.

“San Diego is a major biotech hub, and we knew we needed to make a splash,” said Robbi Lycett, senior vice president of conventions and conferences for the Washington, D.C.–based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which produces BIO International. “Like many other trade shows and meetings, we took a hit in 2009 when the economy tanked. Hundreds of small biotechs disappeared. We wanted to blow it out of the water in San Diego, and we did.”

How? “We focused more effort on expanding the partnering piece,” Lycett said. “That’s where we saw the biggest opportunity to help members and industry the most.”


Lycett, a former vice president of the Consumer Electronics Association’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) joined BIO in the fall of 2005. The association’s new leadership wanted a meeting and convention pro who could turn its major event — BIO International — into a bigger revenue generator to support its primary mission: advocacy for biotech and the burgeoning bioeconomy.

“I was intrigued by biotech — so different from the world of consumer electronics,” Lycett said.  BIO “is less about buying and selling and more about networking, building relationships, and highlighting innovations and advances in biotechnology,” Lycett said. “I liked the challenge of something different, and I could see changes that would grow revenue, attendance, and the exhibition.”

Lycett hired BIO International’s first-ever marketing and sales team, revamped the show’s website, and diversified its exhibitor base, which consisted primarily of state and country pavilions organized by economic-development agencies. The first step of the new strategy involved launching product-focused zones, so more mature companies could exhibit on their own in an organized way.

The strategies paid off: Attendance at the 2006 conference jumped to 19,000, up 3,000 from the year before. The following year the convention went to Boston, the epicenter of the biotech universe, and conference attendance hit a peak of 22,366. Then came the economic crisis of 2008–2009, when hundreds of fledgling biotech companies bit the dust and investment funds dried up. Lycett and her team dug deep to figure out the best strategy for rebuilding their show. That’s when they decided to increase their focus on growing the Business Forum, BIO International’s one-on-one business partnering program.

The Forum’s half-hour-long, scheduled meetings are opportunities for startups to connect with investors, academic and government organizations to collaborate with industry, big pharma to hunt for pipeline drugs and therapies, and investors to plumb the world of biotech for breakout innovations — ​​all in just a few days. It’s a kind of speed-dating/matchmaking service that has proven its value in the biotech community, where bringing new products, drugs, and technologies to market requires a huge collaborative effort.

“When I came on board, we were doing about 7,500 partnering meetings at BIO International,” Lycett said. “We did 29,000 this year in San Diego, involving 5,000 attendees and more than 2,800 companies. We’re aiming to grow those numbers even more in 2015 when we meet in Philadelphia.”


In 2012, BIO moved the Business Forum to the center of the exhibition floor, which required an additional 100,000 square feet of space and building a structure iwht 400 small rooms for the one-on-one meetings. That same year, BIO also began allowing exhibitors to use the partnering system to schedule meetings in their booths. Building the Business Forum on the exhibition floor adds significantly to costs and space requirements, Lycett said, “but we needed to make it convenient for attendees to move from meetings in the Business Forum to those in exhibitor booths. It’s crucial for conducting business.”

Now more than 7,000 partnering meetings are held in exhibit booths. (There currently is no additional charge for exhibitors to participate in the partnering program, although there are requirements tied to booth size. For non-exhibitors, Business Forum partnering is $1,895 for members and $2,595 for non-members, and includes full convention registration.)

BIO’s One-on-One Partnering proprietary software allows registrants to use an online database to pre-schedule meetings; to find potential collaborations and funding opportunities with an international audience; to communicate directly with prospective investors and senior managers; and search company and investor profiles. “We’ve invested heavily in upgrades to our partnering software, and will continue to do so,” Lycett said. “It’s mission-critical.”

To make the partnering program an even more effective business-development tool, users — who must be convention attendees — can access their accounts after the show to follow up on meetings they scheduled and correspondence they had within the platform at the convention. “They can follow up with leads after the convention closes,” Lycett said, “but they can’t use the tool to develop new leads.”


Based on feedback from surveys and focus groups, BIO also consolidated the show from four days down to three. “When I first came to BIO, we had some 200 sessions and 1,000 speakers. Now we have 160 sessions and 800 speakers,” Lycett said. “We’re going to continue to reduce the number of tracks and sessions that we offer and keep topics current and focused on innovation. Our surveys and focus groups tell us that people are just not going to attend 10 or 12 sessions while they are here…. Partnering and all the networking opportunities are their top priorities.”

Among the challenges ahead: Finding enough space to expand the event in biotech cluster cities such as Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, and Philadelphia, among others. “The [host] region’s biotech ecosystem is a draw for attendees as much as the meeting,” Lycett said. Lycett estimates in coming years BIO will need 500,000 square feet of gross contiguous space, with an additional 100,000 square feet just for the Business Forum.

Another challenge: Continuing to do more with less. Robust merger-and-acquisition activity in the biotech arena has reduced the overall number of companies, and that means a smaller pool of exhibitors, sponsors, and attendees. “So we need to figure out ways to continue to deliver value while trimming costs,” Lycett said. “A big area of expense is food-and-beverage at events, and we’ve found ways to cut back there and still give attendees a great networking and entertainment experience.”

As biotech companies grow and mature, the BIO International Convention may expand by growing its attendee base to include sales-and-marketing and customer-relations functions for biotech companies, possibly by partnering or co-locating with another organization. “Although our key strategy,” Lycett said, “will remain partnering and business development.”

Trade-show and meeting-planning organizations can teach you a lot about how to put on the best event, Lycett noted, but the most important thing is to stay close to what’s happening in your industry. “With the economy and technology changing so fast,” she said, “the best way to keep an event on the cutting edge is to be in your industry, not just following it, to be 10 steps ahead and not 10 steps behind.”

Regina McGee

Convene Contributing Editor Regina McGee is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts.