ChemOutsourcing: An Annual Cult Classic
How Mark Alexay Turned the Jersey Shore into a Pharma Networking Hotspot
When Billy Joel once sang about spending his weekend on the Jersey Shore, he most likely wasn't thinking about the pharma, chemical and biotech industries' best and brightest coming together to discuss the latest trends in API development. But for many in the industry, the ocean town of Long Branch has become more synonymous with valuable networking and riveting discussions than building sand castles and sizzling on the beach.
The Pharma ChemOutsourcing conference, which focuses on the entire spectrum of drug development, has become one of the most important industry gatherings of its kind. The show's creator and organizer, Mark Alexay, sets the bar high in terms of attendees and speakers. "ChemOutsourcing is only as good as its last show," he said in an interview with CHEManager Europe.
"I have to shoot for the stars every year or suffer the consequences." Of course, Alexay knows that the allure of the beach can't be completely ignored; through barbeques on the beach and casino nights, he makes sure attendees can enjoy the sand and surf at the end of each conference day.
CHEManager Europe: Organizing any conference is daunting in its own right, but you started the ChemOutsourcing on your own in 2007. How often did you get called crazy?
Mark Alexay: Crazy, never. Not yet, anyway. But the path has been a very unconventional since I'm neither a chemist nor industry insider.
I'm a complete outsider, in fact. As an undergraduate, I studied liberal arts and spent a semester abroad in Bogota, Colombia. Being a college student in a foreign country was a game-changer in that it gave me a very different perspective on everything, and after graduate school, I got an offer from Pfizer to work in Colombia.
Two years later, I returned to the U.S. and began organizing shows for a New York City-based conference company. When that company was sold to investors 10 years later, I was forced to reinvent myself. So, I put up the ChemOutsourcing website, sent out some emails to my contacts, and the rest is history.
What made you so confident that your idea would be a success?
Mark Alexay: From the get-go, my goal was to offer a chemistry event that had never existed before: One that was content focused and aimed at the buyers rather than the suppliers of chemistry services. I took some inspiration from the Field of Dreams line, "If you build it, he will come": I knew if I could institute a high-end show that became an annual cult classic for pharmaceutical company chemists, then the suppliers would come, too.
Once all of your planning was in place, how difficult was it to sit back and watch it unfold?
Mark Alexay: I was patient about letting the show develop on its own timeline. Since the show is mine, not the subsidiary of some larger corporate entity, I could afford to give it the necessary time without the tyranny of short term profit considerations driving my decision-making. I just needed to make sure the bills were paid. There has never been the need to seek external capital or paid consultants who might lead me astray. My clients are my bosses. Though I will always fear failure, which is a strong motivator, I am confident of my capability to develop the event and respond effectively to challenges that come my way. I just need to ask questions and listen to my clients. I want this to be their event.
You pride yourself on hand-picking conference attendees and speakers; how does this mesh with making ChemOutsourcing economically viable?
Mark Alexay: The strength of these one-on-one relationships over the years has enabled the show to be successful. It's all about relationships, delivering on promises, and being honest with people. The custom chemistry space is a large one and if the show grows and consequently gets better, then that would make me happy. If it doesn't, that's fine, too. My goal is for every pharmaceutical chemist in the world to attend every year because it's that good. Of course this is impossible to accomplish, but by setting the bar that high, it helps me focus on quality. A tradeshow is a very perishable, delicate product - I don't get a second chance to fix disasters.
Do you have any plans to spin-off the show or to build up a similar conference elsewhere in the world?
Mark Alexay: No. That would spell the death of ChemOutsourcing. Like I said, the show is a perishable asset, and anything that draws people away from it or otherwise compromises its quality would be its doom. It's hard enough for people to justify three days away from the office as it is. The show hinges on attendee confidence in my ability to deliver a worthwhile show. It takes a whole year to make sure it comes off as expected.
Working so closely with industry insiders must give you a unique view of trends in pharmaceutical outsourcing.
Mark Alexay: I love to talk about the industry and as the only non-chemist, I have a broader perspective. Outsourcing is about the efficiencies of globalization, expense, people, and the challenge of drug discovery. It's evident that it's going to take the whole world to discover the next generation of blockbuster drugs. These are intellectually stimulating topics.
Big Pharma has consolidated and faltered over the past 15 years. Though drug discovery and chemical synthesis really are "rocket science," the continued commercial viability of the industry hinges on constant, breakthrough innovation. That's a tall order. But as challenging as it is, I think humans are capable of continuous, dramatic innovation. It's the history of our species. The connections forged though outsourcing are the way new ideas are being hatched. We couldn't be successful without it.
What do you expect to be some hot-button topics at this year's show?
Mark Alexay: The topics change over the years just because there are practically an infinite number of things to talk about both commercially and scientifically. But in general, people love to talk about supplier-customer relationships. It's almost like gossip, but in a good way. People love to talk about other people or at least listen in on those kinds of conversations. Talk about the future of drug development and broader themes, like the industry, are hot buttons, too. The topics should be discussion-provoking, controversial, and fun - it's not just information, but also the way people feel when they leave the sessions to meet their colleagues. I have to set the right tone.
Do you have any plans to further enhance the intellectual offerings at the ChemOutsourcing?
Mark Alexay: I hope to add a purely scientific track to complement ChemOutsourcing that would enable scientists to talk about drug discovery and related technologies in a way helps advance the field. Maybe drug product, too, on the commercial end. There are so many related areas that I'd have no excuse for not trying new things. I just need to keep taking risks and striving for excellence. I'm lucky to be able to do this and appreciate the privilege - and the responsibility that comes with it.