Why BioNJ’s BioPartnering event was master class in networking — and sector-building

From panels to pitches, open conversations to private meetings, event at Liberty Science Center offers everything founders, life science companies and investors could want

It was easy to count the number of floors at the perfectly suited Liberty Science Center that were used Tuesday during the 14th annual BioPartnering Conference: three.

The same is true for counting the number of attendees at the BioNJ-run event — and where they were from: approximately 650 from 22 states and nine countries.

And the number of prefunding and early-stage companies making pitches: 90 — or about 20% higher than the year before.

Here’s what is impossible to quantify: the number of substantial conversations between founders, investors, top life science companies and academic leaders that could lead to breakthrough partnerships that help enhance the already-strong sector in the state.

That’s what made the BioPartnering Conference a master class in networking.

And why BioNJ CEO Debbie Hart was so thrilled.

“The intention of this event is to bring together all different facets of the ecosystem — for founders and companies to meet each other and potentially explore the ways that they may or may not be a fit to collaborate,” she said.

“Today may be the start of a conversation — or it may be the continuation of a conversation. I had someone this morning tell me they may get funding after a follow-up from a meeting they had virtually last week.”

The event, supported by title sponsors JPMorgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson and Morgan Lewis and hosted by the Jersey City Economic Development Corp., certainly featured a few key panels (smartly kept on the shorter side) and remarks from top industry and government officials (kept even shorter).

That’s standard, as everyone on the business networking circuit knows.

The uniqueness of the event was the multiple ways — and multiple areas — people could connect.

A founder meets with Teva.

In the main expo area, there was an industry connections row, where six major pharma companies in the state (Teva, Sanofi, Pfizer, Merck, J&J and Ferring) all had business development representatives taking 15-minute meetings with anyone who signed up (and the sign-ups filled up quickly).

For so many founders, those were potentially life-changing moments.

This discovery went both ways.

Major companies also were provided more private areas, where they could have conversations with startups and early-stage companies of their choosing (requests were put in days before the event — nearly 500 were booked).

Then there were the old-school “Shark Tank”-type presentations.

Ninety companies split into groups for numerous 80-minute sessions throughout the day and pitched their ideas. (They were given either two minutes for prefunding companies or eight minutes for early-stage companies.)

It was a way for companies to make their pitch not only to large life science companies, but to investors.

When those always-filled company presentations ended, the founders went out into a main meeting area, where they went to individually assigned tables, available to take meetings with anyone looking for more information.

Of course, there also were the casual conversations that took place throughout the day, during the numerous networking breaks.

A company presents to industry leaders and investors.

The event format — which should be copied by others — was by design, Hart said.

“The perfect scenario in all of this is to have an early-stage life science company make a connection with a major company or an investor,” she said. “We want to offer as many ways as possible for those connections to happen.”

Attendees certainly shared the enthusiasm, perhaps a reason why so many stayed all day.

Bill Hagaman, the CEO emeritus at Withum who also serves as a consultant for GenHenn Capital, said the BioPartnering Conference has become a can’t-miss event on his calendar.

And for good reason: GenHenn not only found a company to invest in last year, it tracks many of the startups it sees year to year. This year’s pass could be next year’s purchase.

“We’re always playing a long-term game,” he said. “We’ll find companies we’re interested in and keep following them. As they hit more milestones, we’ll get more interested.”

The format of the event is a hit with Hagaman, too.

“If I don’t get a couple of minutes today, I know I can set up a way to get a few minutes later in the week or down the line,” he said.

That feature of the event should be noted, too.

The in-person event took place Tuesday, but the event had a virtual component Monday — and will continue its virtual presence all week. It enables founders and others who could not make it (located around the world) a chance to participate. And it enabled those who may have met virtually leading up to the event to find time Tuesday for the all-important face-to-face meetup.

One of many gathering and networking spaces.

The connections can last for more than just this week.

Just ask Pragati Sharma, an associate director for commercialization funding at Rutgers University. She wasn’t necessarily looking for companies to invest in — but thought leaders who could help startup companies at the school down the line.

“We’re looking for leaders that can come in and perhaps evaluate our startups, help them avoid the pitfalls that so many face and potentially offer advice to the startups,” she said.

That advice can lead to more than just a few lessons in best practices.

Since startups at universities often involve founders who may not want to leave their day job, these thought leaders — especially if they are serial entrepreneurs — could be asked to take on a leadership role.

“There is a lot here for us,” she said.

This variety of opportunity is what helped attract a variety of attendees, Hart said.

And it’s what is helping the life science industry get a bump in enthusiasm from around the country.

Hart said the sector — long a staple in the state — did not necessarily have a dip.

“We have some of the largest life science companies in the world; New Jersey has never stopped being a leader,” she said.

But Hart is excited about where the sector is headed — and credits Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, with the assistance of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority — for helping it get there.

“The total amount of investments that have been made by our governor and at the EDA over the past six years has been extraordinary,” she said. “We’re already seeing it pay off.

“We’ve always had a strong foundation, but, now, it is even stronger. And so much of what is being put down today is going to pay off for years to come in the state.”

That’s a feeling that was prevalent throughout the event.