What Moves Us – In Healthcare #JPM15

January 19, 2015

Migrations are as fascinating as they are astounding.  Whether considering the greater than 10,000 mile annual round trip made by the humpback, the longest transit in the insect kingdom by the monarch butterfly (3,000 mile), or the nine day non-stop trans-Pacific flight of the bar-tailed Godwit – an ultra marathon-like bird; all are simply stunning.  Whether considered in terms of triggers, preparation, navigation, or endurance, we rightly marvel at how (and why) animals of all kingdoms go to such heroic feats to congregate and move.

Each year the single event that most closely approximates a “migration” in the healthcare industry is the annual January JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.  2015 marked the 33rd of these events, and as if pre-programmed, innate, or perhaps instinctively driven, many, many of us from across the global healthcare and associated finance communities “migrated” again to San Francisco to convene, cross-pollinate, and celebrate (or in some years commiserate) together at JPM.

In scientific literature, migration is considered to be an adaptive response to the seasonal or geographic variation of resources.  Twenty thousand years ago, early humans in Africa noticed and documented animal migrations in their cave paintings.  In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle proposed that migrating spring and summer bird species had in fact transposed or “morphed” into the species he found present in winter – an idea that was widely held all the way into the 1800s.

But the technical answer to “why” is less mystical, and most often attributed to differences in the duration and intensity of solar energy received in each hemisphere at a given time.  (As an annual traveler from Boston to San Francisco in January, I can particularly attest to the power of this rationale.)  But the “why” for globally dispersed healthcare professionals is about the criticality of relationships and the gravitational power of capital, both intellectual and financial.  A place to broadcast our annual accomplishments and disclose intended paths and financial needs.  An annual ritual to be endured and, if possible, inspired.  A gathering that sows the seeds and secures the relationships and financing of medical innovations that are eventually felt across the world.  It is these reasons that have transformed JP Morgan into an oversubscribed event that has become the Burning Man of healthcare and a powerful bellwether of the year to come.

Leading up to the 2015 event we reflected in this blog on how biotech began.  How bold entrepreneurs peered into the first moments of molecular biology and the discovery of restriction enzymes to “imagine” the possibility to build industries that harness biology to produce drugs, food, energy and much more.  Some of those bold first moments are captured in the bronze sculpture at Genentech of Bob Swanson (founder and first CEO of Genentech) and Herb Boyer (co-inventor of recombinant DNA technology).  From the first biotech companies like Genentech remarkable talents have been “grown” and reseeded, and they in turn trained others across the world.  This is the JPM cohort that can find no way to resist January’s call to return again and again to San Francisco, followed close behind by those who wish to bet on them.

Also in last blog post we reflected on the extraordinary 1982 flight of “Lawn Chair Larry” and how he so potently captured the psyche of the world.  Larry’s willingness to push boundaries that he had to explore broke the barriers-of-the-possible for many others.  Yet despite pioneers like Larry and his brethren in the biotech community, there is so much more to do.  Since the advent of molecular biology we now see drugs that are making huge differences in the lives of so many, but in very, very few clinical contexts do we have treatments that are nearly as effective, safe or affordable as we wished.

In 2015 we are seeing the advancement of really impressive new interventions to help treat suicidality and many other really difficult to treat diseases.  Much of the buzz in San Fran this year was about gene editing technologies that give us read/write capabilities as opposed to cut/paste, and new cancer treatments that are activating immunological processes and are much more potent than conventional chemotherapies have generally been.

JPM15 was another inspiring look into what potential medicines and healthcare solutions could be.  But let us never forget the critical role that we each have to encourage ourselves and those around us to “jet” past the boundaries we think we see.  The world awaits us and these new bold solutions.

If Lawn Chair Larry could only see us now.