BIO in Atlanta: a shrinking giant

In Atlanta for BIO, long billed as the world’s biggest biotech conference. It should keep its title this year, despite an attendance likely to be 35 to 40 per cent down on the 20,000 who went to the 2008 meeting in San Diego. The record was 22,000 for BIO2007 in Boston.

Three factors have combined to depress attendance during this week’s event. In order of importance they are the sharp downturn in the economic fortunes of the biotech industry, the location of the meeting and fears of swine flu.

Many smaller biotech companies – particularly those based outside the US – cannot afford to burn several thousand dollars sending delegates to BIO, when they are in serious danger of running out of money.

Nor is Atlanta regarded as an attractive venue for the meeting. The airport is dysfunctional, judging from my experience flying in from London, and – let’s be kind – the city lacks charm. More importantly it is far from the heartlands of the US biotech industry on the east and west coasts and, for agricultural bio, the upper Midwest.  The Boston and San Diego conferences attracted hoards of local companies which have no counterparts around Atlanta.

When swine flu dominated the headlines three weeks ago, the Bio Industry Organisation thought it might be a disastrous further deterrent to people thinking of attending its international convention but in the end flu fear seems to have had relatively little effect. “Hand sterilization stations” are dotted around the George World Convention Centre, equipped with germicidal liquid and paper towels, but no one seems to be using them.

Even in this year’s slightly shrunk form, BIO is still a gigantic meeting with more than 1,000 people speaking at vast numbers of parallel sessions, more than 1,800 exhibitors and innumerable business meetings – for many attendees the main reason for being here is to strike up collaborations and partnerships.

I’ll be reporting and blogging this week from Atlanta on the big issues, from biofuels to stem cells research in the new Obama era.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.