By now, many of you must have read Bruce Booth’s incisive post on the value of JPM Week especially contrasted with the excess it’s associated with. Spoiler alert: He argues it’s not, but please dig into his musings. I felt myself nodding along as I read the piece.
Booth writes from not only an investor perspective — he is a partner at Atlas Venture — but also as a compassionate human being portraying the stark contrast of tailored suits streaming on the streets of San Francisco with the obvious poverty of pan-handlers.
I overheard one of the cadre of the former category blithely declare, “Money is the easiest thing in the world,” while soon after hearing a pan-handler with not such an obvious access to cash repeatedly calling out something along the lines of “Spare a dollar for a Maserati.”
If poverty is largely ignored at JPM — one exception being the effort of biotech and healthcare reporters from STAT— so is another perspective: patient stories. Where’s the value in a healthcare event that won’t acknowledge the very people it is designed to assist, something that Booth also questions in his piece?
But what about us media denizens? How valuable is JPM Week to reporters? Here’s my take given 2019 was my 7th year covering this healthcare juggernaut.
First, I would make a distinction between J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference and the other ecosystem conferences that have cropped up — Biotech Showcase and StartUp Health Festival, to name just a couple.
J.P. Morgan is its own beast.
You have 30-minute sessions that are simply investor pitches where CEOs of primarily public healthcare companies of all sizes recount their capabilities. These are positively yawn-worthy. Few CEOs bring their personalities to bear on these bland presentations and these almost appear to be designed not to create news. I generally park myself in the back of the presentation room, so I can promptly leave in time to find a seat in the so-called “break-out sessions.”
These sessions, by contrast, typically take place in much smaller rooms and the discussion is led by the J.P. Morgan equity research analyst who asks questions of the CEO and the management team. And then, the analyst opens it up to the audience to ask questions of management.
It is in these breakout sessions where the drama, if any, happens in the St. Francis Westin hotel in Union Square where the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference occurs.
But over the years companies have been pulling back on these breakout sessions. Pfizer reportedly didn’t have one this year and in preceding years too. Bristol-Myers Squibb and Celgene’s presentation was combined into one this year and although the former is buying the latter, BMS management did not do a breakout leaving reporters and anyone interested in their business marriage high and dry.
Meanwhile, a gentleman in the media room, who had a press pass for the first time told me that he was advised by his JPM contact not to ask questions in the breakout sessions. In the Medtronic breakout, even though I raised my hand several times, the JPM analyst largely ignored me and asked his own questions to CEO Omar Ishrak and attendant senior management for the entire half hour slot. He did not open it up for questions as was allowed in the past, choosing to ignore the audience entirely.
In the Dexcom breakout session, the same JPM analyst paused during his questions, which allowed people in the audience to pepper Dexcom’s CEO with interesting questions. In fact, MedCity’s most popular story from JPM came about because an audience member asked Dexcom management a question about competitors like Medtronic, to which Dexcom’s executives answered by saying Medtronic was really no competitor at all in the standalone continuous glucose monitoring market. And although the JPM analyst kept ignoring my raised hand in the Medtronic breakout, I waited till the session ended to go up to Ishrak and ask for a response to Dexcom’s characterization and wrote a more complete story on Dexcom’s competition in the continuous glucose monitoring market.
Not taking any audience questions during certain breakout session appears to be a way to exercise control. In advance of the 2018 JPM Healthcare conference, the press contact announced via email to reporters that we would not be allowed inside the breakout sessions. After an outcry from myself and other journalists, JPM reversed its decision for which I was thankful. Still, more and more of the keynotes during lunch are becoming off-the-record. This year of the three keynotes during lunch at JPM, only one was on-the-record. And that was FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and you can’t very well say this is off-the-record given that Gottlieb works for the American people.
This year, both the interview of J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, a staple at the conference, who is actually fun to listen to, and the back and forth between with Democratic strategist James Carville, and his wife, the conservative former presidential advisor Mary Matalin were off-the-record. The latter’s banter-style sessions have been featured at other conferences — as recently as October at the Manova Summit in Minneapolis – and those haven’t been off-the-record.
Still, a few JPM sessions in 2019 were valuable – both the digital health session and the precision medicine session featured robust discussions. Similar panel-style discussions at the Digital Health Showcase, Biotech Showcase, the Startup Festival also proved useful. Less so are the company presentations whether by startup entrepreneurs at StartUp Festival or an experienced CEO of a Fortune 500 at the main JPM conference at the Westin St. Francis in Union Square.
I can’t make the same expense-value analysis that Booth made and which so many would likely identify with when it comes to attending JPM year after year after year. As a member of the press, we don’t pay a dime to attend any conferences ever, JPM includes. But the avenues for newsmaking at the JPM conference proper are rapidly dwindling. If more and more companies choose to jettison the breakout sessions, and if JPM analysts do not allow the audience in those sessions to ask questions of the assembled management, then we might go the way of Booth too.
Photo: Hong Li, Getty Images