Life Science Innovation Northwest Conference 2013 – medical device startup perspective

I attended LSINW last Wednesday and Thursday July 10-11 as a poster presenter. I’m serving as acting CEO for a University of Washington startup we’ve named SimpleCirc. The simple, safe, swift, and inexpensive adult male circumcision device is intended to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa (you can download our poster here: SimpleCirc LSINW 2013 Poster)

The LSINW poster submission and conference admission process is a bit of a bargain. Not all posters are accepted, but the ones selected are placed prominently in the main hallway of the conference. Most of the conference attendees walk through the poster exhibits several times per day. There are many opportunities for interaction. The presenters are given coaching and two full-conference admissions for $175. That compares to $350-$1500 per person for full price admission. Needless to say, we took full advantage of every opportunity.

Overall, LSINW is very professionally produced and run by WBBA, the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association. Printed materials are high quality, the presentation venues have up-to-date AV equipment and adequate staffing, the various presentations and panels run like clockwork, and the food/refreshments are more than adequate in quantity and quality. The conference schedule is made available in a brochure, a digital PDF file, and in a tablet/smartphone app called Guidebook (more about that later).

There was a cocktail/networking event at the end of the first day but the organizers also scheduled an event honoring local women in life sciences AND had a rock band made up of (amateur?) musicians in the Seattle life sciences scene. There was too much going on for me. The noise level was high and it was difficult to hear in that space.

A Life Science conference necessarily has a wide variety of attendees: small, medium, and large medical device company executives, biotech execs, a few pharma people, consultants, service providers, grant-making officials, physicians, researchers, and academics, angel investors, VCs, media, etc., etc. Not every person had an interest in what we’re doing but it is always fun and interesting to look for a connection.

LSINW created several tracks for the two-day agenda: Biopharmaceutical, Medical Technology, Emerging, Health Information Technology, and Innovation. There truly was something for everyone and I often found myself torn between two compelling but simultaneous presentations.

The Opening Keynote speaker, John Crowley, CEO of Amicus Therapeutics, was unable to attend due to a family emergency but the conference organizers came up with a last-minute substitute, Charles Baltic, Managing Director of Needham & Co. He was an OK speaker but I’m sure he repurposed an existing presentation – very heavy on info about financings and IPOs.

The first day lunch keynote speaker was Steven Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Co. He updated his talk about the state and future of healthcare in the USA from last year but it was entertaining and extremely interesting. I’m impressed with his presentation abilities. He blows through ~150 slides in under an hour and apart from looking at a monitor to see what slide was being displayed, never looked at a note the entire time.

The panel discussions were good. Most of the moderators were well-prepared with stimulating questions and the panels – usually (but not always) executives with Seattle connections. Most of the discussions were non-controversial with panel members sticking to relatively “safe” positions. That is, until the last panel, “Blood from a Stone – Who is Left in Life Science Investing Today?” moderated by Luke Timmerman of Xconomy who did a fine job by staying out of the spotlight.

Sparks flew as three panelists more or less representing the Venture Capitalist side of funding sources sparred with Gregory Simon of Poliwogg, a relatively new crowdsourcing site for angel investors. For sheer entertainment value, this was the best panel of the conference. The perspective of the VCs seemed to be that “we are smarter than everyone else” and the “average investor” needs to be protected from the risk of losing their entire investment. Excuse me, but I don’t believe any VC fund offers money-back guarantees.

Gregory Simon was entertaining, if a bit of an iconoclast. He did make a number of good points and also noted that very recent changes by the SEC have enabled crowdsourcing of angel investments – details are still forthcoming but it is very exciting from my perspective. There are few opportunities in Seattle for early stage device companies to get seed or Series A funding. Once those have been exhausted, it’s off to California and overcoming the challenges of being unknown and from out of town in order to raise capital.

An added bonus was the participation of James McIntire, Washington State Treasurer, giving the perspective of a pension fund trustee, and Tracey Mumford from the Michael J. Fox Foundation representing the “venture philanthropy” segment. As an attendee remarked during the audience Q&A, democratization in venture investing is coming whether or not you want it or are prepared for it. He also served up the example of the meltdown in the investment banking industry over credit default swaps and mortgage derivatives to show that “the smartest guys in the room” are not infallible.

I’ve attended a number of LSINW conferences, starting in the days when they were held at the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Elliot Bay in Seattle. The Washington State Convention Center is the perfect place for this meeting, in my opinion – centrally located downtown, spacious, clean and accessible. No, there are not great views but that may be the only drawback.

I mentioned the Guidebook app earlier. It’s a nice compendium of the various events – and it auto-updates whenever there is a revision (like the keynote speaker change). You can even make a schedule for the entire event. BUT, you can’t upload the schedule to your Google Calendar or Outlook calendar. And you couldn’t sync the schedule in your phone to your tablet or vice-versa. Also, there was another event called Biopartnering where interested parties could arrange brief get-to-know-you meetings. Unfortunately, that function could not be integrated with the Guidebook schedule, meaning I had to juggle three different schedules over two different devices. Not for the technology-challenged!

As for my perspective as a startup CEO, I’m often left wanting…more from these events. Many of the panel discussions focus on biotech or later stage financing like VC or IPO. I would like to see a panel of startup medical device CEOs who recently completed an angel round to share their experiences, do’s and don’ts. I would also like to see a stronger presence from Angel groups like WINGS.

On the other hand, Seattle is a small town when it comes to life sciences. You can get to just about anyone with one or two requests for referral or introduction. The LSINW conference is a great way to do that in person every year. If you are a startup CEO or are thinking about a startup, I strongly recommend that you attend next year, June 19-20, 2014.