Think JPM seemed slow this year? You're not alone—and here's why

San Francisco once again played host to the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. (Carly Helfand)

SAN FRANCISCO—“Slow,” “quiet,” “calm”—call it what you will, but for many attendees, this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference didn’t seem to live up to its trademark frenetic energy.

Last year, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $74 billion Celgene deal announcement—which happened just days before JPM—set the biopharma world abuzz, and Eli Lilly kept the ball rolling with its $8 billion Loxo pact on Day 1 of the meeting.

But this year? Crickets, at least on the dealmaking front.

“It’s relatively quiet, and there are not a lot of needle changes,” AstraZeneca’s biopharma president, Ruud Dobber, said.

"The vibe I’m getting is that it’s a little slower this year than it has been in previous years," GlaxoSmithKline oncology R&D head Axel Hoos agreed. "Less deal flow in general, a little bit less pressure, less frantic activity than you often find here at J.P. Morgan.”

Some execs, including Helen Kim, managing director of Vida Ventures, noted that industry players may be waiting for things to come—including the U.S. presidential election and a turning of the market—before making a splash.

But Glenn Hunzinger, pharma and life science deals leader at PwC, had another theory. After a 2019 that saw $250 billion dollars in M&A transactions, this year, “it does feel like a little bit of calm, because everyone has kind of settled into their strategic agenda,” he said. Whereas last year saw “a lot of pent-up, ‘we gotta do something now,’” this year—following a flurry of divestitures, spinoffs, joint ventures and the like—it’s more like, “'hey, we’re good.’”

But it wasn’t just the lack of deal activity this week that made things seem subdued, some executives pointed out. There seemed to be fewer people roaming the scene overall, GSK’s Hoos said.

“It feels like some of the events that you go to also were a little bit less dense than previous years” when “you [could] barely pass through the crowds. Now, the crowds were a little lighter,” he pointed out. (Editor’s note: We agree. Definitely had way fewer “Oh my God, I’m going to die in a fire” moments in the hallways of the Westin St. Francis compared with previous years.)

What could be keeping people away from an event that’s never had any trouble drawing mammoth crowds?

Costs, for one. The secret is long out that major companies with plenty of money to spare descend on Union Square every January, and San Francisco establishments have raised prices accordingly—on hotel rooms, meeting spaces and even café tables.

“It’s now driving people away from a meeting once seen as a must-attend,” Dan Budwick, founder of 1AB Media, told FierceBiotech before the conference.

“If you think about a startup drug development company, or even a mid-stage company, spending $1,000 a night on a hotel room—that’s separate from the cost of getting into a Biotech Showcase or J.P. Morgan. And then there’s the cost for meals, coffee and so on,” Karen Sharma, managing director at MacDougall, added.

But it could also just be that J.P. Morgan has lost some importance as companies adopted more of a year-round announcement-sharing cycle. Many companies these days travel to investor events and medical conferences throughout the year, as one midsized biopharma company CEO pointed out. There's more of an ongoing dialogue now, he said, and fewer people have major news to share at the J.P. Morgan event itself.

AZ’s Dobber also posited that “it’s more a timing issue” than anything else. “The bar is high for many companies, including AstraZeneca, to make substantial acquisitions, so I think that’s the main reason that people are no longer waiting specifically for J.P. Morgan to make those announcements,” he said.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the way Kymera Therapeutics CEO Nello Mainolfi sees it. “We’re … at a stage where, hopefully, we are driven by business decisions that make sense for our companies, and we don’t optimize for big announcements,” he said. "In a way, we have to move past J.P. Morgan being the be-all, end-all of 2020 for biotech.”