Is The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference Still Relevant?

Photo by Scott London

The 36th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, happening in San Francisco, has become the Burning Man of biotechnology.

It’s no longer the under-the-radar West Coast pilgrimage of eclectic pioneers gathering to have brief encounters with interesting people, share insights about drugs, and behold a blossoming movement. Like Burning Man, the Conference in 2018 is mainstream. At least Jamie Dimon, the keynote speaker, won’t be wearing a pink tutu.

With success comes congestion—those who have been to both agree that Burning Man is the lesser fire hazard. In the gridlocked corridors, old-timers small-talk about the way things used to be. Nostalgia reigns, and so does the status game among attendees as to what year they lost their Conference virginity (mine was the same year I went to my first Burning Man).

Most of the action, of course, happens far from the madding crowd of the Westin St. Francis Center Camp at innumerable hosted encampments throughout Union Square. There, the vibe is decidedly different. Novel therapies for human diseases have been getting approved at a historic rate (46 drugs approved by the FDA in 2017 – the most in 20 years). On the pipeline front, the creative verve that launched the biotech industry in San Francisco during the 1970s has never been more evident. The number of compelling early-stage compounds that could address unmet medical needs is in the hundreds, if not thousands.

I know some folks who attended the adolescent years of the Conference that don’t bother to show up at all anymore. For them, there is a sense of Paradise Lost. Yet among the growing tribe that return in record numbers every year, there are feelings of hope and optimism about the industry.

The reality is that the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, like Burning Man, is just coming of age. It is more relevant than ever, and the best years are still ahead.

[Adapted from original publication on]

© 2018 Joon Yun