JPM23: What's medtech's place at the conference? CEOs from CVRx, Axogen and more weigh in

In its 41 years, the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference has borne witness to innumerable shifts and evolutions across the healthcare landscape, including the explosion of Big Pharma’s power—and, alongside it, an explosion in drug pricing—as well as the biotech booms that have occurred practically every decade since the 1980s.

With that massive increase in its popularity and its outsized proportion of all health-related spending, biopharma has a tendency to outshine other segments of the healthcare industry. For medtech, in particular, which was once a top-billed star of the JPM show, it begs the question of where tech makers fit in at the conference—if at all.

In interviews with Fierce Medtech throughout this year’s meetup in San Francisco this week, a dozen CEOs and other C-suite executives from companies making devices, artificial intelligence algorithms and more offered a range of answers to that question—from wholehearted preferences for other conferences to a lasting excitement for the JPM madness.

Among those looking for alternatives to the conference was CVRx CEO Nadim Yared. Though it’s undoubtedly “an important meeting,” he said, the annual MedTech Conference hosted by AdvaMed may be even more important for smaller medtech companies looking to connect with potential partners and investors.

A conference focused solely on medtech creates “a very interesting environment,” according to Yared—who is currently a member of AdvaMed’s board of directors—“because the medtech industry, and particularly the smaller companies, feel lost here when they come to J.P. Morgan. There’s so much going on, and the attention of investors is so distributed, and it’s a zoo.”

The smaller conference, then, poses an alternative—“not to hurt J.P. Morgan,” Yared noted, “but to create yet another venue where they can have those discussions without the craziness of J.P. Morgan.”

Immunexpress CEO Rolland Carlson, Ph.D., agreed, suggesting that other conferences like the Biotech Showcase, which took place in parallel to this year’s JPM, could be more helpful for early- and midstage medtech startups looking for investors.

The molecular diagnostics maker is currently on its series C funding round, placing it in a kind of “purgatory” at JPM, according to Carlson, “because we’re just starting commercialization, but everybody looks for revenues.”

“I think it’s very important to be on everybody’s radar scope about emerging companies such as ourselves,” he said, but added, “JPM used to have sessions for private companies that were up and coming, and those invitations are fewer and far between at this point in time.”

On the other hand, leaders like CEO Chris Mansi, M.D., and Dexcom’s Kevin Sayer argued that there’s still plenty of value for medtech companies of all sizes to attend the annual meeting.

For, which has partners across biotech and pharma, “it is about actually meeting these partners, showcasing what we do, showing clinical data,” Mansi said, adding that even though Viz doesn’t have “imminent” plans to go public, ”It’s really useful for me as a CEO meeting a lot of the financial institutions here, particularly institutional investors, and building longer-term relationships.”

Sayer echoed those thoughts: “All the big investment firms are here. All the other peers in the industry are here,” the Dexcom CEO said, though he noted, “I think there used to be a tone at this conference where smaller companies got a really big voice; I don’t know if that voice is as loud now as it was.”

But even if smaller medtech makers have to fight to be heard at the conference, Sayer continued, “I just think being here gives you value. If you're a small company that’s going to grow and become a big company someday, you need to go through exercises like this—it’s pretty good prep.”

Freenome CEO Mike Nolan described the meeting as “amazing” for the cancer diagnostics maker, especially since Freenome has so much “complementary work” to do with biotech and pharma partners.

“We have so much to gain from biopharma, and we have so much to bring to biopharma in this model of complementary strengths, so it’s really exciting for us,” he said. “It’s really incumbent upon us to demonstrate the value that we bring as a really devoted, determined member of the community.”

Beyond meeting potential partners and investors, the conference also presents an opportunity for tech makers to show their counterparts in biotech, pharma and healthcare the new technologies that could soon disrupt the entire health sector.

“There’s always a desire to understand what’s new,” Darius Shahida, Butterfly Network’s chief strategy and business development officer, said in an interview. “In the past, we’ve attracted a lot of interest from larger players who have come to our presentations to understand what’s on the roadmap, given how novel our technology is.”

That trend will likely continue, he predicted, judging by the companies that were invited to speak at the 2023 conference: a combination of “smaller, newer companies presenting alongside some of the larger incumbents,” Shahida said.

Also in that “sponge mode” was Invitae’s CEO Kenneth Knight, who was tapped for the role last summer after a two-year stint as the genetic testing company’s COO and who had previously worked well outside of healthcare at Amazon, General Motors and Caterpillar.

“It’s really exciting for me to hear the passion that still exists about doing things that are special for the patients,” he said of his first go-round at the J.P. Morgan conference. “I’m still learning, I’m trying to connect dots and trying to meet people who have a shared interest. I’m the new kid on the block who’s excited to be here.”

Spanning the gap between those still all-in on JPM and those looking elsewhere to make a greater impact was Axogen CEO Karen Zaderej. On the one hand, she said, meeting up with investors and collaborators in any capacity is always hugely beneficial.

“You’ve got to get together to allow for collision to happen, because that’s where innovation and creativity originates from,” she said. “You bump into people, and it’s amazing the ideas that come out of it, so I think there's utility and benefit in that.”

In terms of creating those collisions specifically at the J.P. Morgan conference, though, Zaderej had “mixed feelings.”

“It’s so big and so frantic that I kind of wonder if people even remember the conversations,” she said. “I do have that challenge internally to say—especially as you’re starting to kick off the year—is this the best use of our time? And I don’t know the answer to that; I think everybody’s asking that same question.”