Startups flock to Biogen Idec hoping to do business

January 15, 2014

Robert Weisman

Quests for funding, exposure, expertise

SAN FRANCISCO — Hour after hour, from early morning until the sun slips behind the hills, a parade of eager biotechnology entrepreneurs comes to court the industry heavyweight from back East that has set up camp at the Hotel Nikko.

They bear business cards, Powerpoint presentations, and rosy projections of success. They hope to persuade the Cambridge-based drug maker Biogen Idec Inc. — which vaulted to the top ranks of global biotechs over the past year by doubling its market value to $64 billion — to invest in their experimental medicines, license their drug candidates, or even buy a chunk of their start-ups.

Ushered into a suite with three colleagues, the leader of a West Coast biotech passes out printed copies of his pitch to Biogen Idec executives and declares, “We want to build a relationship.”

Translation: We need to be associated with one of the hottest biotechnology companies on the planet.

It’s been that way all week for Biogen Idec — and for dozens of other companies from Massachusetts’s mushrooming biotech cluster — at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. The annual meeting has drawn a record 8,500 executives and investors to the area around Union Square. Thousands more spend their time outside the official conference in nonstop rounds of private meetings and networking events that have become a kind of Rorschach test of who is seen as having the power to make things happen in the biopharmaceutical business.

“Much of the action is not taking place in the public presentations,” deadpanned Steve Holtzman, Biogen Idec’s executive vice president for corporate development.

Biogen Idec’s sales jumped 21 percent during the first nine months of 2013 on the strength of its US launch of the multiple sclerosis pill Tecfidera, which quickly became the market leader in oral MS treatments.