Pharma Readies for Competitive Intelligence Confab

Last Updated Mar 25, 2008 7:59 PM EDT

Belt up your trenchcoat and grab your false-bottomed sample case: Big Pharma's spies have called a conclave, and most of them won't even have to leave New Jersey.

The occasion is the Pharma CI Conference & Exhibition, a meeting planned for September in Iselin, N.J., that bills itself as "the best and largest assembly of pharmaceutical competitive-intelligence executives." It boasts 40 senior-level drug-company speakers, an all-star lineup that includes officials from Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Wyeth, Johnson & Johnson, and Bristol-Myers Squibb -- and that's all before the first mid-morning coffee break.

Just what is "competitive intelligence," you ask? Oddly enough, the conference Web site is silent on the subject, and the agenda isn't much help -- it mostly lists bland-sounding sessions such as the "Pharma Challenges" keynote and "Pharma CI in Times of Economic Uncertainty." Chances are good that if you have to ask, you're probably not welcome at the confab in the first place.

To be fair, most competitive intelligence appears to involve legitimate sleuthing through public information about corporate rivals -- more green-eyeshade than Sam Spade, so to speak. (Not to shill for the mother ship or anything, but for background you could do far worse than this BNET "crash course" on business-world espionage.) Still, we've seen enough of the drug industry's dirty laundry aired in recent years -- see Audrey Blumsohn's blog for an ongoing catalogue of Big Pharma horrors -- to make me wonder what might get discussed outside the formal presentations in Iselin.

After all, it's worth remembering that in pharmaceuticals, the need for competitive analysis stretches well beyond the strategic plans of other drug companies. Savvy pharmas also want to know what doctors are prescribing and how their habits can be shifted, how to massage clinical-trial results for the maximum marketing impact, the latest details of what Medicare and private health plans will pay for their drugs, and which way the winds are blowing inside regulatory agencies, particularly the FDA.

Unsurprisingly, the CI conference agenda doesn't have much to say about these somewhat more, um, sensitive topics. If any readers have been to earlier versions of this or similar conferences, feel free to drop me a line or share your thoughts in comments.

(Hat tip to the Scientific Misconduct Blog, via Health Care Renewal.)

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    David Hamilton is the assistant managing editor of CNET News. He has been writing and editing business and tech coverage for about two decades -- the majority of that at the Wall Street Journal in both Tokyo and San Francisco. He is a two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club award and has written for numerous magazines and blogs, including Slate, Science, VentureBeat, CBS Interactive's BNET, California Lawyer and the New Republic.