Alex Philippidis' 2020 JP Morgan Conference badge

The big deal about the just-completed J.P. Morgan (JPM) 38th Healthcare Conference had little to do with big M&A deals, because there weren’t any. This time last year, the $74-billion Bristol-Myers Squibb acquisition of Celgene was announced, as was Eli Lilly’s takeover of Loxo Oncology for $8 billion.

There were no such blockbusters this year, though there was an interesting potentially up-to-$2 billion-plus collaboration: MorphoSys outlicensed ex-U.S. commercialization rights to its anti-CD19 Fc-engineered antibody tafasitamab to Incyte, with the companies agreeing to co-commercialize the B cell malignancy candidate Stateside.

Alex Philippidis at 38th J.P. Morgan 38th Conference
A dearth of deals, Illumina’s double launches, and the usual crowds marked the 38th J.P. Morgan 38th Conference.

Speaking with GEN Edge* hours after the announcement, MorphoSys CEO Jean-Paul Kress offered interesting insight on the new collaboration, explaining how Incyte’s blockbuster success in commercializing Jakafi in the United States was an important factor in selecting Incyte from more than 20 competing companies.

Also notable among collaborations at JPM this year was Illumina’s new alliance with Roche, which GEN Edge also covered with details from the president of Roche Sequencing Solutions, Neil Gunn, MSc, PhD. How times have changed: In 2012, Illumina rebuffed Roche’s hostile takeover bids of $5.7 billion, then $6.8 billion. Now, the companies are teaming up to accelerate the availability of distributable NGS-based in vitro diagnostic (IVD) tests on Illumina’s diagnostic (Dx) sequencing systems. Roche also agreed to join Illumina in adding new companion diagnostic claims to Illumina’s comprehensive pan-cancer assay TruSight Oncology 500. The value of the new collaboration, however, has not been disclosed.

Unlike last year, when Illumina’s biggest JPM news was CEO Francis deSouza insisting it was still committed to the $100 genome, the company unveiled two new sequencing systems for the “mid-throughput” market segment, including clinical/oncology users and smaller research labs. The Grand Ballroom of the Westin St. Francis was packed thanks to widespread speculation about a new sequencing platform launch, which was duly confirmed with the introduction of the NextSeq 1000 and 2000. However, Illumina didn’t address widespread speculation about a new long-read sequencing initiative following the collapse of the PacBio merger.

Illumina’s news didn’t appear to wow investors. The company’s share price fell nearly 4% Monday to $323 and dipped further before bouncing back. However, Baird senior research analyst Catherine Ramsey Schulte and research analyst Thomas Peterson maintained their “outperform” rating, surmising that the chilly Wall Street response reflected Illumina’s 2020 revenue guidance, “which we acknowledge would be disappointing at the low end” of $3.86 billion, while the high end of $3.93 billion “should be a good starting point for the year.”

Elsewhere, Alexis Borisy’s $200 million startup EQRx drew a flurry of news coverage for its ambitious commitment to delivering a “market-based solution for the rising cost of medicines” offering “dramatically lower prices.” EQRx plans to “launch their first medicine within five years, and to have 10 approved medicines within 10,” wrote Jorge Conde, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), a co-leader of the startup’s Series A round.

Those are heady claims, which Derek Lowe dismisses as hype: “If a16z and the other backers of EQRx think that they have shifted the science risk here, they are mistaken,” Lowe wrote in his blog, In the Pipeline, calling the company’s strategy “frankly nuts” and betting the company $500 that it won’t deliver 10 drugs in 10 years.

Follower of fashion

Having covered most JPM conferences since 2014, I was also struck by the growing number of presentations by companies outside traditional biopharma—especially diagnostics developers and digital health concerns. One presenting company was GenapSys, the developer of an iPad-sized sequencer that raised $90 million late last year—and whose Scientific Advisory Board includes notable names like Eric Topol, MD, and George Church, PhD. (We’ll have more coverage of them both in GEN Edge and sister publication Clinical OMICs soon—including updates from OncoCyte CEO Ronnie Andrews and Guardant Health SVP, biopharma business development Daniel Simon.

Yet at JPM, some things never change: The streets were as crowded as ever with people in grave need of shelter and social services—some of whom may have been dumped downtown by bus during the day. They’re a stark contrast to the moneyed minions attending the conference at the stately Westin St. Francis Hotel, whose hallways were as crowded as ever. Many of those attendees shelled out an outrageous $1,000 or more a night just to stay at hotels near the event. Rest assured, GEN covered the conference in a much more frugal fashion.

Speaking of fashion… The JPM conference had its own uniform, the fleece jackets worn by many of the executive and investor attendees, mostly adorned with corporate logos. This correspondent’s approach to sartorial splendor was a stylish red GEN fleece jacket that was hard to miss—especially by the reader who paid an unsolicited compliment for losing some weight recently.

If you’re thinking of attending in 2021, two words of advice: Book early!

 

* GEN Edge is our new premium subscription service, offering business-focused life sciences coverage that includes CEO interviews, in-depth reports on companies, and regional economic development updates.

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