Perspectives from Coulter Partners

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference (JPM) held every January, is considered to be the largest and most informative healthcare investment symposium in the Life Sciences industry, bringing together business leaders, emerging companies, technology innovators and investors. As representatives from over 450 healthcare companies and more than 10,000 attendees descended on the 35th J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco this year, what emerged as the key themes and discussion points? Which topics were debated in the conference room and what were the themes discussed informally by executives in the corridors?

In this article we disclose our own observations from conversations with industry experts and investors at the conference, and share what we perceive to be the most talked about “hot topics” at JPM.

Investor optimism

  • Following a “jittery” JPM 2016 during which various planned IPOs were pulled, JPM 2017 appeared to be more upbeat, as the business community applied a “heads down, business as usual” approach. Despite uncertainty around the new Trump government and Brexit, investor optimism appeared high.
  • Investors were feeling positive at this year’s event; recent high profile Life Science investors such as Zuckerberg and Gates have created a venture investment ripple effect. There is an anticipated rise in IPO activity in Q3/Q4 2017 and early 2018 and a warming up of M&A, with interesting deal structures coming to light. Furthermore, as companies look to “revenue diversification”, the biggest focus appears to be on new ventures.
  • Corporate VCs are keen to invest strategically across borders, prioritising innovation and alignment over location. Interest from Chinese investors in biotech is rife, with Chinese venture capitalists and individual investors appearing unmoved by Trump‘s proposed trade tariffs. There were several dedicated conference sessions between US biotech executives and potential Chinese dealmakers; Nanjing-based Sanpower Group Co’s acquisition of Valeant’s cancer business for $820million marks just one of several recent Chinese external biotech investments¹.
  • This year’s conference witnessed a continued increase in the interest around digital and technology-enabled health care investment. Cybersecurity, analytics, patient engagement and population health appear top of investors’ agendas², with artificial intelligence also gaining interest.  With a spate of collaboration announcements from Illumina, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s interest in artificial intelligence, IT and digital investment across all healthcare sectors promises to remain a portfolio priority into 2017.
  • Discussion around NYC’s investment in biotech continues to grow. At the end of 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio disclosed separate life sciences investments of $1.15 billion collectively for the New York region³. With Massachusetts approaching the end of its ten-year biotech initiative in 2018, the question remains whether NYC has an appreciation of the substantial non-monetary resources and infrastructure necessary to succeed in building a biotech hub on a par with Boston or San Francisco.

Immuno-oncology – where do we go from here?

  • There remains an enormous range of immuno-oncology (I/O) approaches, however a few recent failures are causing “fence sitting” and there is some flow back to “broad portfolio” building.  Despite the huge R&D investments needed, several high profile companies have milestone I/O trials this year…. and for now it remains a secure direction, despite creating some pressure on companies to diversify their future investment strategies.

 Brightest prospects for the future…

  • Genome-editing, personalised medicine and next-generation sequencing remain “hot topics”.
  • Interest in the Human Microbiome as an integral part of drug discovery is continuing to grow. Although some recent poor trial results are raising scepticism and the regulatory environment is challenging, the importance of the Microbiome and how it can inter-relate with genomics and immunology, remains at the forefront.

Talent, board and governance as key drivers

  • As the appeal of working for high-growth, innovative biotechs grows, Big Pharma companies are struggling to compete for rare skill-sets. Large Pharma players are having to address their own culture, remuneration strategies and HR approaches (such as on-boarding and flexible working), to remain attractive to the contested talent pool.   There appears to be an increased targeting of academics to enter industry and considerable pressure to review operating models to avoid losing top talent.
  • The composition of the Board is central to the progress of Life Sciences businesses and needs to develop at key stages in their commercial evolution. Debate around the value Board members contribute and whether new rigour is needed around governance and diversity in particular, remained a concerning topic for many company leaders at the conference. The backlash over gender disparities in biotech was witnessed when a group of more than 100 prominent life sciences executives, investors, and business leaders signed an open letter during the conference, calling on the industry to step up efforts to increase diversity.
  • Apprehension continues around the inflationary industry salary levels in certain biotech roles – especially in and around the Boston area – with questions being raised about the sustainability of these remuneration models.

Neha Rajdev, Business Intelligence Associate


  1. Chinese Investors Have Money, Want Biotech and Don’t Fear Trump, Bloomberg, 10 Jan. 2017
  2. 2017: The Year Ahead in Healthcare Information Technology, Healthcare IT News, 3 Jan. 2017
  3. Mass. and N.Y.’s rivalry has extended to biotech, Boston Globe, 14 Jan. 2017