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Grim Outlook Seen for Biotech Investor Event

Executives at the annual conference are likely to face challenges in drumming up dollars.

January 06, 2003|Paul Elias | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — It was in San Francisco last year at the annual JP Morgan H&Q Healthcare Conference that Samuel D. Waksal, then the chief executive of ImClone Systems Inc., famously understated: "We screwed up."

And it's here, at the annual investor conference that starts today at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, that investors, executives and analysts alike will get a feel for the coming year in the industry -- a sort of biotechnology Groundhog Day that lasts all week.

The prognosis is not good.

"Investors have lost a lot of money on paper," said Timothy Cooke, chief executive of Hawthorne, N.Y.-based Mojave Therapeutics Inc., who was planning to attend this year's conference.

Waksal's remarks before a packed room of skeptical investors, analysts and scientists on Jan. 9, 2002, sent ImClone's stock into a slide from which it has not recovered.

As ImClone crashed, coming under fire last year for botching its Food and Drug Administration application to market its cancer-fighting drug Erbitux, so too did biotechnology in general.

Publicly traded biotechnology companies as a group have lost more than 40% of their value since last January, and privately held companies are having trouble attracting investment.

Executives of some 250 biotechnology companies will stagger into this year's event faced with the daunting task of convincing investors to loosen their purse strings in 2003.

Most biotech companies lose money and need constant cash infusions to fund expensive drug experiments.

"Biotech depends heavily on the capital markets, which were very tough in 2002," said G. Steven Burrill of investment bank Burrill & Co. "This had a devastating effect on just about everybody."

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