One would expect, when attending the largest biotechnology convention in the country, to find sugar-grain-sized robots that eat cancer cells, right? Or maybe a genetically engineered tree that has petroleum for sap? How about a way to grow a third arm, solving forever the cocktail-party problem? Alas, at BIOtech International, held last week at the San Diego Convention Center, there was none of that. Indeed, there seemed to be precious little innovation of any sort on display. As one San Diego-based exhibitor said, preferring to keep his name confidential, “This isn't an innovators conference. This is for business.”
The post-convention press release bears him out: 20,108 people, 2,100 exhibitors, 1,000 speakers, 175 break-out sessions and 14,500 one-on-one partnership meetings. That last stat is a BIOtech record. That so many attendees were willing to pony up $2,300 a piece shows the influence of the $73-billion biotechnology industry. But the conference wasn't about gee-whiz technology at all, a fact made evident by the enormous pavilions set up by 60 nations and states. Want to relocate a company to China? The Chinese had a giant space set up, decorated in red. How about Canada? Kentucky? Frederick, Md.? Officials from those places, plus the Canadian minister of finance, 10 governors from American states and our own Mayor Jerry Sanders, turned out to go biotechnology fishing in the hopes of landing a whopper of a company for their region.
The other major category of exhibitors was “innovation support.” Many of the booths at the convention sported the tag line: “Let us support your innovation.” These were the organizations looking to provide manufacturing expertise, settings for clinical trials, robot arms to help fill pill bottles, even a whole row of small companies whose sole specialty is sterilizing rooms so that they're suitable for experimentation. Any company with an actual idea looking to be supported, assisted or snuggled could be sure of finding someone to talk to.
Not to say the 208,000 square feet of convention space was totally bereft of ideas. The Manitoba, Canada-based Composites Innovation Center is trying to find ways to compress the straw left over from wheat or hemp production and turn it into a hardened fiberglass substitute, possibly strong enough to be used for motorcycle fenders. Another firm, Cinvention AG from Germany, thinks it's figured out how to use nanotechnology to eliminate some of the more disgusting parts of vaccine production. (Vaccines are commonly incubated inside a chicken egg. This outfit proposes using a carefully constructed carbon surface to replace the egg.)
But mostly BIO 2008 was about meeting, flirting with and possibly engaging in the foreplay of deals (occasionally deals are even consummated, but that's usually back in the hotel after some heavy negotiations). But like any good seducer, exhibitors came ready with gifts, food and entertainment to loosen up their dates—err, clients. Check out the swag available: 256-megabyte thumb drive, yo-yos (standard and light-up varieties), stress balls, embossed pads of paper, pens stacked like cord wood, bowls of candy (including a weird, rice-and-fishy thing from China—not tasty), tote bags, a neon green thing to put on luggage so it stands out as yours (or at least, belonging to someone who attended BIOtech 2008), a strange plastic toy from Choate that held a thick red goo that flowed slowly from top to bottom, grocery bags and hand-fans. And that's hardly the full list.
On Tuesday night, opening night, the convention center suddenly became the site of an impromptu kind of talent show in which performances were arranged by location instead of chronology. Starting from the southeast part of the convention center: Argentina provided tango dancers and wine. Korea had fan dancers in traditional garb accompanied by zithers. Austria had professional waltzers in evening wear and a live string ensemble. New York had no entertainment, but it did have buffalo wings and Saranac Pale Ale. Ireland had an Irish jig band and Guinness. And Canada had doughnuts and Mounties (the next day, there would be attractive women handing out fliers wearing striped hockey-referee uniforms, completing the Canadian-culture hat trick). What made these doughnuts especially Canadian? They were made by the Ontario-based Tim Hortons. And not just by a Canadian company, but actually in Canada. The doughnuts had been shipped, half-baked to San Diego, a minimum trek of 1,400 miles, where they were finished off in ovens housed in the aptly spacious and sparsely settled Canadian pavilion. In the mornings, they had the most popular booth by far.
The conventioneers themselves walked among this bounty, garbed in their uniforms of business suits or khakis and oxfords, in a bemused state of sensory overload, at least on day one. By day two, the politicians began making their appearances. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told everyone how hospitable California is to the biotech industry—and reassured constituents that he opposes offshore oil drilling. Sanders made an appearance to say much the same sort of thing, minus the drilling bit. Upstairs, seminars on everything from obesity to new kinds of medical-distribution technology spoke to what must have been enraptured audiences.
After their rigorous day of workshops and swag collecting was over, conventioneers did just what the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau hoped they would do: strolled across Harbor Drive to the Gaslamp. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, conventioneers would have had a pleasant amble with nothing to note. But on Thursday, a glance into Children's Park would have revealed a crew of mostly 20-somethings milling about. This group had scheduled a shadow convention, the “Say Goodbye to Biotech Party.”
The park actually makes for an ideal place for hosting a gathering, especially on a hot sunny day in June. The tall trees provided shade, low mounds of grass provided bleachers, of sorts, for watching speakers, 2-foot-high cement blocks made a staging area for lunch. Circles of grass bordered by cement provided ideal delineations for workshop spaces dedicated to composting, urban gardening, health and a post-industrial skills discussion. A grassy square faced by a low grass mound made an impromptu amphitheater for the keynote speaker, microbiologist and recently unsuccessful congressional candidate Mike Copass. A crew of eight police officers stood along the north end of the park, watching the protesters, and the Police Video Unit even set up a camera to record the goings on. They needn't have worried.
The protesters spent remarkably little time actively protesting. There were no signs, no fist waving in the general direction of the Convention Center. Nor did they spray paint anyone's fur coat or stand on the Convention Center's steps wearing chicken feathers to symbolize the plight of livestock. Instead, they sat, and they talked.
“We just want to offer an alternative to Monsanto and their suicide seeds and the biological weapon makers inside,” said Shannon Dowdy, a 25-year-old childcare worker, referring to the agribusiness giant that developed seeds whose adult form never produces more seeds.
At 1:30 p.m. the anti-convention began with a free lunch of soup, fruit and sandwiches. Attendees ate alongside several homeless men who happened to be snoozing nearby and were invited to partake. As they ate, more attendees turned up, one wearing a bright-pink superhero outfit. The cement pillars were soon covered with donated clothing, books with their covers torn off (bookstores return unsold books to publishers, but they only send back the covers—the rest of the book is usually discarded). In a grassy area, 'zines in the form of photocopied tracts on herbalism, composting and revolutionary tactics filled a space 4 feet by 6 feet, for anyone who wanted them.
The workshops themselves seemed to have two areas of focus: how to plan for a post-industrial world and how to take action to prevent us from having a post-industrial world.
“I don't see it as an apocalypse,” said Sarah Davis, a professional midwife. “I see it as inevitable. But it won't be an apocalypse if we prepare.”
Davis' session focused on what skills would be required after such a time as Monsanto destroys civilization as we know it. They came up with a list that included farming, house building and do-it-yourself healthcare, but, for some reason, not journalism. Earlier, Dowdy, who was one of 10 organizers, led a “skill-share” in which attendees swapped tips on urban gardening and composting. (Question: “Can you compost a dead animal? If you found a dead bird or something?” Answer: “Yes, but not in the compost you'd use for food. And be sure to bury it.”)
Over in another cement-lined circle, the Revolutionary Clown Army tried to teach basic clown protest skills to 13 conventioneers. The members of the RCA wouldn't provide their names or even speak about their basic mission. But, apparently, they protest a lot, and based on the training, their primary tactic is to play “Red Light, Green Light.” Anyway, everyone had fun, which may be more than can be said for the BIOtech folks.
Finally, at 4 p.m. Copass made his appearance. He stood on top of one of the cement pylons in sandals and a yellow button-down shirt, trying to make his case that the biotech industry he was once a part of had many problems, but that maybe not everything they did was disastrous. He spent a lot of time discussing Merck's decision to allow Vioxx to be distributed despite knowing that it could cause heart attacks, among other stories of capitalism run amuck. But he finished by making the point that biotech provided some benefits, “as any diabetic taking artificial insulin could tell you.” He advised attendees to corner BIOtech conventioneers and talk to them about the consequences of their company's behavior, and to exert pressure on elected officials.
“Don't grab your pitchforks and burn the castle just yet,” Copass said. “But keep them close by. Just in case.”