Saturday, October 24, 2009

Conflicted on Conferences

There are a lot of conferences. And more and more are in the fields of social entrepreneurship, clean technology and green business. Just this weekend, one could attend Poptech in Maine, Social Venture Network in La Jolla or the Energy Justice Program in Boulder. Is this a good thing? What is all this conferring doing to make the world a better place? Here are a few issues that concern me.

1. It's hard to keep up. In the room in Boulder are people who would also be good participants in Maine. Some of the conversations seem to be similar. And we could sure use Esther Duflo in our conversations on energy justice here (maybe next year?). Are we fracturing the chance to get things done by having concurrent conferences and lots of conferences?

2. Inclusion. Always an issue. But it makes me nervous to sit in a room with a lot of people from USA and Europe talking about solving problems in Africa, India, etc. I don't think this is immoral, but I do think it is ineffective if you want to look at action instead of conferring.

3. It is a lot of carbon. At Poptech today, Michael Pollan said that "a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius."* But what about a vegan that jets around the globe going to conferences to tell people about carbon footprints? (And no, I didn't ride my bike down to Boulder today and I'm not a vegan.)

4. It is a lot of conferring. But not much doing. This is my biggest concern. Conferences seem to attract "idea people" who love to share ideas and network with each other. It is the nature of conferences is to encourage people to talk about BIG IDEAS. But BIG IDEAS are often HARD IDEAS and once everyone heads home, not much seems to happen. This is an intellectual waste, isn't it?

How could we redesign conferences to actually accomplish change? A few ideas...

1. The International Development Design Summit intentionally targets "prototypes, not papers." The Clinton Global Initiative assumes participants will make financial commitments to the programs it spotlights. As the CGI site states, "After attending thousands of meetings during his career in which urgent needs were discussed but no action was taken to solve them, President Clinton saw a need to establish a new kind of meeting with an emphasis on results." Perhaps our Energy Justice Conference could have faculty commit to add energy justice to at least one of their classes, and have students pledge to do one of their class projects on the topic. Organizers, ask yourself: "what could my conference DO? what happens after the final session?"

2. Maybe we should call them "creater-ences" or "do-ances" to emphasize creation and doing, instead of conferring. (I once visited a company that didn't have conference rooms, they had decision rooms. Cool culture.)

3. Change up the schedules. Too much old school, one-way lectures. These are not "conversations," no matter how often the organizers overuse the word. Social media may change this. As more people multi-task, perhaps the discussions will become more robust and more two-way. But instead of defaulting to the virtual world, how about having multiple types of sessions, not just lectures and panels.

4. Leg chains for keynote speakers. A lot of the "biggie" speakers are hit and run. Great message: fly in, fly through your powerpoints, meet with a few elites, fly out. Don't spend time with students, don't visit a few small companies. Very inspiring (NOT). Conference organizers, why not ask your speakers to commit to staying and engaging?

I blogged about this a few years ago, and still agree with myself on this topic.
Addendum 10/30: Thanks for the helpful comments and emails. Here are a few nuggets of interest, or perhaps portents of change?
From Martin Montero (@montero), this link to Dan Palotta's HBR blog on a "Change the World" conference. On Guy Kawasaki's Alltop Good site, I discovered this open source conference for women entrepreneurs. And see Lars's comment regarding changes to Social Venture Network conference agenda.
*Evidently, Michael Pollan didn't do his calculations on vegans very accurately. Ooops. Careful Mr. Pollan- we expect you to research your tasty soundbites, so they don't leave us feeling queasy after we have consumed them.
Addendum 10/31: I will be at BYU's Conference on Economic Self Reliance this coming week (Nov 5-6). Will work on making sure there are some outputs for my session on "Building on BOPportunities: Strategies for Start-Ups."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A BIG Deal

In 2003, two guys (with whom I used to work) started a company. No big deal. Happens all the time.

At first, the company looked at using some new vaccine delivery technology. Both guys had other jobs. But they wanted to build a company together. They had a start on the WHO, but not really the WHAT yet.

But they were fortunate. One of them lived in a town where the Centers for Disease Control has laboratories. And where the land grant university has a number of scientists working on infectious diseases in the developing world. And a few non-profits that were working on products and services to improve public health in the developing world. And it probably didn't hurt that there were a few good local breweries to support "beer storming" ideas. An idea for a company began to evolve.

And these guys were knowledgeable. They knew about doing research. They knew about drug development. They had worked at top research universities and in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. They had a lot of respect for what the drug companies did. But they also wondered about what the drug companies didn't do. One thing the drug companies didn't do was develop many drugs or vaccines for the billions of people in the developing world. Their business models didn't work for these markets. Their pipelines were focused on the diseases of the affluent- expensive medicines and treatments for chronic diseases. The developing world was a place for off-patent medicines or the occasional charitable venture, not a place to target R&D efforts.

So these guys thought about how they could build a company that created products for those billions of people. They studied the markets. They spoke with early leaders like One World Health. Could they do research on new vaccines? Instead of expensive treatments, could they develop affordable vaccines that would prevent disease. Could they develop products that would also work for the middle class in these countries? For travelers to these countries?

Well, from those ideas, they started building a company. Global from the start. To develop vaccines to fight infectious diseases. Top quality research, top quality manufacturing. Partnerships with clinics around the world. Picking diseases, such as dengue fever, which did not receive much attention from other companies, but had huge impacts on public health. A big idea, maybe. But still not a big deal.

At first, they got told they were well intentioned, but crazy. Why develop products for these less developed markets? Why develop vaccines, which don't have a continued revenue stream? Why move manufacturing outside Western countries? But they kept plugging away. And they began to win a few awards (Colorado's most promising biotech Business Plan in 2005). They raised some start up capital from friends (including me). They were awarded some grant funding from the NIH. With each step, they looked a bit less crazy. They added a few more smart, well-intentioned people to the team. A good idea, good people. But still not a big deal.

They knew that bringing a vaccine to market takes tens of millions of dollars. That was going to require venture capital, and venture capital requires competitive returns. In 2006, the company decided it was time to start raising money to start building the company. They pitched and pitched, making the case that these markets and diseases were attractive and that the company could profit from preventing these diseases. To put it diplomatically, they got a polite reception, but not an enthusiastic one. Professional investors asked some of the same tough questions about the markets and vaccine based business models.

Over time, the company stayed afloat, and the perceptions of this company, the attractiveness of its target markets and its business model, began to change. At several points, the situation looked dicey. But these guys, and their employees and partners, persevered. In 2008, they found a lead investor. Got a term sheet. But then the global financial crisis made it tough to fill out the group of investors. They survived and kept working. Which was a good thing, but not a big deal.

Finally, last week, more than three years after they started working on Series A and after over a hundred investor presentations, these guys, and their company Inviragen, closed the round. $15 million dollars. Enough to take the company through the early clinical trials of several vaccines. You can read more about the company at their website. And more about the Series A investment, and merger with Singapore based Singvax, in their press release.

So, why do I think this is a big deal? It's not because of the money (although that is certainly helpful). It is because of whose money it is. Sometimes you hear an entrepreneur say "all money's green; who cares who the investor is." Well, those entrepreneurs are wrong. It matters who your investors are. And Inviragen's investors are top notch biotech VC's. Experienced. Main stream. Connected to a network of people who know how to bring products to market. They found Inviragen to be a compelling investment.

This is one of the first of what I hope to be many deals where mainstream investors see the benefits of starting high tech ventures that serve global markets, including the poor. And I hope that it shows that the drive for attacking global public health challenges can be very profitable for investors. That the value they create can attract top private capital firms. In fact, I hope it shows that the financial returns required of this venture will drive the successful commercialization of several vaccines, saving thousands and thousands of lives. And yes, I think that is a BIG deal.

Congratulations to Dan Stinchcomb, Jorge Osario and the rest of the Inviragen team, and best of luck in continuing your worthy work.
Note: I am not an unbiased source. I have known Dan and Jorge for years, and was an early investor in their company. I also served as a director of the company until recently.