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  • dawnbell

Making JPM Week more inclusive

Updated: Jan 15, 2023

Belonging is a fundamental human need. It's lizard brain stuff, going way back to our earliest ancestors when being kicked out of the tribe meant certain death. In modern times, social connection, or lack of it, is a well documented risk factor for mortality, depression & dementia. As we learned from the forced isolation of the pandemic, we need each other. And importantly, we need to gather in each others' physical presence. Virtual is a supplement, not a substitute, for face-to-face social and business engagement. So it's no wonder that so many people from around the world choose to gather in San Francisco in January and pay exorbitant prices for hotel rooms and meeting spaces during the JPM Week. They want to be part of a community. To belong.

Belonging is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. Growing up we moved around a lot. I went to 7 different elementary schools before 6th grade. I was always the new kid, always figuring out how to fit in. How to belong. My cousins who have had friends since kindergarten (something I envy), couldn’t imagine a life far from where they were born. And when economic necessity required them to move away after high school, it was a tough transition. Not for me though. I've had to make new friends my entire life. I went away to college, worked with people from all over the world, traveled extensively, and have lived in West Virginia, Chicago, Montreal, and now in the NJ suburbs of NYC—all very far geographically and culturally from where I grew up in Southeast Alabama and along the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Florida.

All of this moving around and fitting in has an upside. My new kid survival skills make me very good at mirroring. This means I can quickly connect with people and put them at ease. I can read a room, figure out what's going on, and intuitively know how to respond. The ability to quickly build rapport and put people at ease is a phenomenally valuable skill and is part of who I am. I'm genuinely curious about people and I want them to feel comfortable and welcomed (my Southern hospitality perhaps). I’m also very good at language (one at least) and am quick to pick up on specialized lingo, so I can sound like I belong.

But all this moving around also left me with some baggage that I call "insiders syndrome," which is basically a very strong desire to fit in, to be on the inside, no matter the situation. Insider syndrome is performative. It's fake. It's an armor I put on to survive and not get kicked out of the tribe. "Performing belonging” means I’m struggling to fit in, so I'm careful to use the right language, to say the right thing, to act and dress in a certain way. It holds me back from learning and asking questions, because I'm afraid to admit I don’t know something for fear of being judged and kicked out of the tribe (which again, our lizard brain perceives as an existential threat). Nine times out of 10, that fear is unfounded. I generally find people in our industry are generous and inclusive (just look at biotwitter—we created a diverse, open and kind community on a platform known for hate and vitriol).

So what the heck does any of this have to do with JPM? JPM is the ultimate insiders meeting IMO (although moves to democratize have been implemented and its better than it used to be). 2023 marked the 41st anniversary of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, which JPM itself describes as the “largest and most informative healthcare investment symposium in the industry which connects global industry leaders, emerging fast-growth companies, innovative technology creators and members of the investment community.” Amazing! Sign me up. But wait. There’s a catch. When you click on the button for “registration” to the conference, you learn it is only for “clients of the firm, by invitation only.” That’s right. To attend the “largest and most informative healthcare investment symposium" in the world, you have to be invited by an investment bank founded by one of the richest families in history. And of the 11 “faces” of the JPM Healthcare conference on the website, 7 are white men. What could be exclusive about that?

In 2023, about 8,000 people were registered for what I’ll call JPM proper (according to Barrons), but more than 40,000 descended on San Francisco for what has in more recent history been dubbed the “JPM Week” to account for the meetings which have grown up around JPM proper over the years. Notably, meetings specifically geared to private and emerging companies such as Biotech Showcase and RESI (Biotech Showcase running the first three days of JPM proper and RESI on one day) draw hundreds of companies not presenting at JPM proper, typically private and early stage (but also some public companies as well). Throw in the mid- and large-cap partnering teams, the VC, law firms, academic showcases, receptions, etc., and the 2nd week of January starts to look pretty darn important for most healthcare companies and the industry as a whole--as Michal Preminger of J&J Innovation pointed out in the post-JPM BiotechHangout show, all of the stakeholders are there. The entire biopharma/healthcare innovative ecosystem. But the whole thing can feel opaque and exclusive for those who don't have a network to guide them to the inside (see this thread from Jennie Nwokoye, CEO and founder of Clafiya).

Full disclosure, I am not a JPM insider. I'm not a client of the bank, I have never been "invited" to JPM proper, and the 41st gathering is only the 4th time I've ever been to JPM Week. So I hope its comforting to know that it doesn't take forever to get the hang of this (especially with all the great tools, social media, etc we now have). But the first time I went to JPM Week I was clueless. I had founded a company (Cool~Bio) and went there to meet investors. I had a small network at the time (compared to now), and a generous recruiter friend shared several invitations to events he had received and a literal list (in a PDF document) of different receptions I could attend. I remember well one over the top reception (attended mostly by white men), where scantily clad Cirque de Soleil style female dancers traipsed through a giant ballroom and so much premium whisky was being poured I got drunk from the smell alone. Needless to say I did not feel like I belonged there (and I didn’t). It was gross. My second meeting was in 2016, and was marked by the infamous Life Science Advisors reception where they hired “cocktail models” to entertain predominately male attendees which triggered an open letter to the industry led by Karen Bernstein and Kate Bingham, resulting in a somewhat more diverse JPM in the years that followed (more professional receptions and no more half-naked dancers that I’ve seen anyways).

So we’ve made a lot of progress since those days thanks to the activism of women, people of color, the start-up community, and other generous biopharma leaders that have created spaces of belonging within what can be a rather exclusionary JPM Week. The event schedule was made much more transparent and accessible this year thanks to Ali Ardakani from Novateur Ventures and the BIO organization who launched the JPM app. Social media promoted events to a broader audience (e.g. the Biotech Hangout/Clubhouse TweetUp, altJPM from IDEA, BLOC_US, etc). So if you’re in the know, LinkedIn to bioTwitter (see what I did there), you can get a good handle on JPM Week and how to navigate from your network. But what if we didn’t have to go through all these machinations and we could democratize all of it, make it more accessible and inclusive to encourage people who aren’t industry or investment insiders to attend and participate fully? People who haven’t traditionally been in this industry or at this conference (e.g. women, people of color, founders, international attendees, etc).

Let’s discuss location and venue (everyone's favorite parlor game). I’m not a San Francisco hater. I do hate cross-country plane rides, don’t do great with the time zone, am concerned about my personal safety in the Union Square area, and the weather is often not great. How about the venue? Those who go to JPM proper complain about the St. Francis Hotel and the rest of us complain about schlepping between other hotels in the rain. Is a convention center the answer? Maybe. I’m not a meeting planner, so it's hard for me to judge if even the largest convention centers would work considering the multitude of meetings and receptions around town. Having been in cardiology earlier in my career, I’ve experienced the major convention center towns, and they all have their drawbacks. No one wants to be in Chicago in January, New Orleans is too hard to get to, Orlando and Anaheim are too spread out. Atlanta is intriguing, but haven’t done a meeting there in the new conference center and traffic can be brutal. Vegas is . . . well, Vegas. Not my jam, but others might like it. Certainly better weather. Neither AHA nor ACC have been to Miami, which makes me doubt if it can handle a crowd of 40k.

Clearly there are issues with any location a conference of this size might choose. And sadly San Francisco’s challenges with homelessness and violence is shared by many large American cities these days. Plus, San Francisco has the advantage of being concentrated geographically, which creates serendipity and makes moving between events easier. So I think we can agree that location change is a mixed bag (and highly unlikely).

But what about the Moscone? Intuitively I can imagine “zones” for Biotech Showcase, RESI, JPM proper, other day-time conferences currently held in various hotels, and some partnering as well. I think there is value in the serendipitous meetings in the halls and on the streets of San Francisco that we have with JPM Week now, and my hypothesis is that a convention center venue in a town as concentrated as San Francisco would increase chance meetings by bringing people closer together during the day and preserving the night time reception proximity that facilitates reception crawls. Perhaps worthy of a discussion for future JPM's?

One thing we can count on--JPM 2024 will be in San Francisco, status quo with the “invite only” JPM proper in the St. Francis Hotel, and a multitude of meetings around the meeting, same as it ever was. We're not changing that, but experienced JPM’ers can help those less experienced in our community navigate better. There are generous people who are more than willing to hook you up if you ask, but that means you have to know who to ask. Sometimes you don’t even know where to start. If that’s where you are, bookmark and tune in for our launch later this year. We’ll break down all the events surrounding JPM proper in 2024, registration costs, attendance, ROI, etc. We’ll highlight resources for navigating JPM as they come out—all in one place. We'll create some great content with "insider tips" so you'll be more confident and get the most out of your meeting. We’ll collect FAQ’s, post videos, and hot tips on everything from the best receptions to how to approach Pharma partnering. If we get ambitious, we might even have a marketplace for roommates or other sharing resources.

Be the change you want to see in the world. JPM proper may always be invitation only, but the community that has grown up around it can be inclusive and welcoming and shape the industry into what we know it can be. One whose leaders and members are as diverse as the patients we serve. And if you're feeling out of place, I'll leave you with this advice. A wise woman once told me that I need to belong to myself first. Sit with that for a minute. It's comforting once you get used to it.

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