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BIO 2009: Attack of the Regional Bio-Clusters

Wandering through the BIO 2009 exhibit hall, where representatives from Tennessee to Thailand and Missouri to Manitoba gathered to tout their biotech prowess, you have to wonder: do these folks really get anything out of exhibiting at BIO? Everyone wants to attract biotech to their region, but it just doesn't seem very likely that any biotech CEOs are perusing the exhibit hall thinking, "You know what? Screw San Franciso -- let's pick up shop and move to South Dakota."

Of course, that didn't stop nearly 300 cities, states and countries from setting up booths at BIO and attempting to lure conference-goers with swag, food and even chances to win cars or luxury vacations. Some even brandished "official reports" proving the robustness of their biotech clusters (although the "officialness" of these is dubious at best. For instance, the Milken Institute's annual bio-cluster ranking, which placed Philadelphia behind Boston but above San Francisco and San Diego, was paid for by -- you guessed it -- Philadelphia.)

Despite all the noise on the channel, a quick and dirty survey of regional economic development groups exhibiting at BIO 2009 showed they all felt they were getting their money's worth.

Kentucky claimed that their program for matching SBIR grants was really and truly drawing VCs and entrepreneurs to the booth. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, said they were getting a lot of traffic from biotech and pharma biz dev types interested in licensing opportunities from the region's universities.

Several of the international booths -- including Austria and Argentina -- got visited by CROs looking to set up new clinical trial sites.

And for the folks at some booths, like Minnesota, the biggest benefit came from the chance not necessarily to network with biotechs but to network with each other. "It's the only time all of us from across the state" -- which houses 3M and the Mayo Clinic, among others -- "are in the same place and can talk about what we're each working on," one exhibitor said.

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