On the path to making the best possible Festival of Genomics
Our founder, Ivan Karabaliev, met with Richard Lumb the Founder and CEO of Front Line Genomics, and the organiser of the Festival of Genomics. We met at the 5th edition of the Festival, which took place on 23-24th January in London. We were very lucky that Richard had the time for us to share what makes the Festival a top event choice for the life science community. He also shared the challenges his team have experienced on the path to achieving its current status. One would think that organising a busy 5th London Festival would be without any struggles. Below you will get an idea of what it takes to make the Festival what it is today.
Ivan Karabaliev (IK): It is the early morning of the second day (24th Jan) and it is already buzzing with activity! Richard let’s start with the stats for this year’s event?
Richard Lumb (RL): Sure. We are just shy of 2000 people, which is significantly up from last year’s Festival. On the first day, it was absolutely heaving, especially in the main theatre hall. For sponsors and speakers, we have between 280-320 people. For speakers, we have several types: keynotes, panellists, workshop leaders and special interest group speakers. For exhibiting companies, we have 45.
IK: Impressive numbers. What delegate profiles can we see at the Festival?
RL: This year we have a huge and very exciting mix of people. It is one of the only places in the world, and certainly in the UK, where we get this sort of mix from academia, pharma, healthcare, a combination of technology companies, patients, and patient organisations all in one place. The other key profiles you can meet at the Festival are the solution providers who are taking their innovations to market. Having this variety fosters amazing networking opportunities.
IK: Since it is the 5th London Edition of the Festival, can you say it is one of the most successful festivals and why?
RL: The London Festival is the fastest growing festival by a long shot! Last year’s and this year’s events were our biggest and busiest festivals ever, which says something about the state of the Genomics in the UK. Part of the challenge for us is to attract more international visitors, which is especially important with Brexit happening. We don’t want the UK to become a closed shop.
That’s reflected in the agenda, particularly in showcasing ground-breaking genomics developments happening in Estonia, Finland and beyond.
Additionally, if you notice a lot of our UK-centric branding that was used in previous events now has a much more European flavour. For instance, the skyline graphics you see around the Festival contain a lot of skyline elements from different cities around Europe.
IK: What is different at this year’s Festival and does it get easier organising them?
RL: Even if it is the 5th time, it doesn’t get any easier to organise the Festival. For this year the main difference is the new venue, which brings challenges from a logistical standpoint. And we are definitely learning lessons on how to use this venue.
This year’s sessions have been extremely popular, and the theatre halls have been packed! We never had that to quite the same extent.
For the second day we had to swap two of the theatres around. They were a different size and we did it to anticipate the attendee numbers a little better.
We also had to stream our keynote presentations into a second room as the first one was full. And our primary rooms yesterday were absolutely heaving. Yesterday, the only way some people could see the presentations was through the door outside the theatre hall.
On one side it is great to have this attendance, it’s due to the success of the event, but we don’t particularly like that our attendees face struggles getting to the sessions. We explicitly aim for people to have an incredible experience at the Festival.
So working with the venue is a really important factor. It is very likely we will be here again next year.
The other big change is from a content standpoint. A lot of the people that we have been talking to over the years, who are pretty much embedded into the genomics field – whether they are in Pharma or academia or healthcare – are increasingly looking at other sources of data – not just genomics. I think you noticed already that multi-omics is an important topic this year. We are following what is happening in the market. The industry is moving on from solely analysing genomic information, to taking that information and combining it with other data sources to get meaningful insights that may impact areas – from how you treat a patient, to how you develop a drug, to even shaping your strategy as a business.
And you have to reflect that change, it is important. So arguably the Festival of Genomics is almost becoming the Festival of Genomics and Biodata, as the field continues to mature. That is a natural conclusion. It is the integration of lots of different data types, and that throws up some very significant challenges and opportunities, which is very exciting. Because it is really about what impact genomics can have in the context of all the others things that happen in the life sciences community. And that is the significant change we see highlighted at the Festival.
IK: This year you have different types of registrations. Free attendance is somewhat limited to end-users and non-profits only. Perhaps, the reasoning behind it is to achieve a balance in the audience?
RL: You are right, it is partly balancing the audience. The other key reason is that our exhibitors at the festivals, particularly when attendance was free, subsidised the entire show. They were the only revenue stream for the entire Festival. And the feedback we got from the exhibitors from last year’s London Festival was that they felt as if they were subsidising the attendance of their competitors. That is quite constraining for us because previously, attending as a vendor was free! The danger to us if we had continued to let that happen is that a lot of companies that exhibit, stop exhibiting, which means that the Festival cannot happen.
So for us, it was essential to find the right balance between our social mission and getting people to the event for free or as cheaply as possible. And also making the event an outstanding place for our vendors, our clients, and technology companies to do business. As a result, what they have experienced this year is a lot more relevant footfall to their stands.
If you speak to the exhibitors later today, particularly in this room, they were really happy. It is the happiest group of exhibitors we have ever had. So that is exciting. However, I fully recognise that in an ideal world we would still be able to offer tickets to the vendor community for free.
But it is really important for the long-term sustainability to get that balance right. Because otherwise there may be no Festival. The net impact is positive, but we certainly lose something when we don’t have a significant number of those tech companies in the room.
IK: Like any great event, returning sponsors is a sign that things are going very well! You have sponsors who have been supporting the Festivals throughout the years. Coincidentally, Sort My Events is running a survey about event organiser’s issues where our findings point to securing and retaining sponsors as one of the leading problems. How do you achieve such a high rate of returning sponsors?
RL: Firstly, it’s important to be very transparent. Many of the things we talked about in this conversation, we also talked about with our exhibitors and sponsors. So right from the outset, we work really hard to ensure they will achieve their business objectives or tell them where we believe they won’t. And that is really important because that builds a lot of trust with our clients.
For instance, we actually tell a number of our clients that the Festival may be wrong for them for these reasons. The majority of those customers end up doing business with us in some other way. Which is really exciting and refreshing, as I came from the commercial world of events, where often people in those businesses, would say almost anything to make a sale. We don’t do that.
By being honest and transparent with exhibitors you end up with companies that achieve great value from the Festival. Of course, every year we have a couple of exhibitors who don’t achieve this, and where we get it wrong and they get it wrong, and that happens. But you have a higher proportion of companies that actually do get value. Because we have taken that time to work with our customers, more of them come back.
I think the brand plays a big role as well. The biggest surprise was the extent to which the commercial sector and vendor organisations connected with our social mission and our back story, particularly early-on. I set up Front Line Genomics in response to my dad dying, and I wanted to close the gap between this great technology and patients not really benefiting from it. And people really connected with that, particularly our clients, which has been fantastic. And honestly, this is a big surprise to me. So I think that our mission is very different from most event organisers. We have a social mission that we are very proud of.
IK: This transparency seems to resonate really well with the needs of sponsors and exhibitors. So that brings me to the question: What dictates the agenda of the Festivals and how involved are the sponsors in helping shape the program?
RL: Sponsors are involved to the extent that we research within the entire genomics market, and that is everybody from scientists, students for sure, clinicians, right up to director and C-level in a range of different organisations, but also vendor organisations, as they are a really important part to what is happening.
One of the things that the genomics community can be proud of is the drive and ambition to put new innovative solutions to the market. It is a really vibrant sector. We want to work with them to know about what new technology is coming to market, and we want to showcase them at the Festival.
For example, if you have seen it yesterday it was absolutely packed, we had an open theatre session called the Innovation Showcase, where we originally put seats for 35 people, and we had more than 60-70 people wanting to listen to the session – which they could by standing. This shows the real interest in innovation. Actually, in many respects, our vendors are the best people to speak about innovation.
IK: Exciting! So one can say that the Festival is increasingly becoming an excellent place for companies and vendors to showcase their products?
RL: I think it is exciting because there are an increasing number of companies that will really get value from coming to the Festival, whether that is sponsoring, exhibiting or attending. And there are a lot of people who work in pharma companies, academia and healthcare who have previously felt that the Festival is too genomics focused, maybe they are bioinformaticians who deal with multiple forms of data, for whom I think the Festival will become a perfect event.
But it is important that we don’t lose the core strength of the Festival, which is this incredible place for the genomics community to meet. It is really important to keep shortening the gap between patients and the technology.
By being honest and transparent with exhibitors you end up with companies that achieve great value from the Festival.
IK: Coming back to the sponsors. Has the new GDPR rules affected the types of exhibitor and sponsor packages? The reason I am asking is that some event organisers used to exchange delegate contact details with sponsors and exhibitors based on one-off usage. How do you approach this?
RL: Yes the new GDPR legislation does affect the packages. Among other things, people need to know and consent to how their data will be used, and who is getting that data.
So that has been a change for us. But it has been an exciting change, as there are two ways to look at it. One is that, naturally, we have less data to provide to our clients. However, the data that we share with clients has been shared with the explicit consent of our attendees. And secondly, it is more relevant to our clients and better for our attendees.
For example, the way we tackled this at the show is setting up sings next to the theatres, which explain exactly how and why the scanned data will be used and processed.
IK: Richard a question about effective networking. In our findings, one of the major issues that event attendees experience is having effective networking. Is the Festival organised with that in mind? Is there a platform tool where attendees can connect?
RL: There are two things relating to networking. One of them is the platform we use and what we do on-site.
We use an event app, built by Bizzabo. All the attendees who have the app have the opportunity to reach out to the others who have the app. One of the challenges we have is increasing the uptake of the app, so more people can benefit from its experience because we want people to be able to network efficiently. Part of what we would like to achieve is to collide people together from distinct backgrounds and experiences, and that is the magic that comes out of this Festival.
So, we want to encourage the use of the app for that very same reason. And that is something you can experience as an attendee too. Midway through yesterday, uptake of the app was about 55%, which is pretty good. I am a perfectionist and I won’t be pleased until it is 95%-100%. But for an event of this size the uptake is pretty good, and already we have been discussing steps for next year to take that figure up to 100%.
And the second thing is that we create a lot of opportunities for people to physically network. For example, we have discussion forums, we have lots of break-out space, meeting space, areas where you can bump into people, including the poster and job zones. And, of course, the tree of life café and other seating areas.
That is really important because we want to create spaces where people meet. At the Festival, random people bump into each other over a coffee and have a chat. It is fantastic.
IK: Interesting and well thought through! Coming back to your challenges, do you already have a plan of action for the next event?
RL: The biggest challenge we had at this Festival was the sessions being over-attended. And we as a Festival will need to look at how we organise our presentations and sessions – logistically, because the speakers are fantastic – a lot better than we have done this year.
We want to make it perfect next year.
We already have a few ideas to do this better. We will re-introduce having chairpeople, who will do the speaker introductions and who can manage the questions. We didn’t have this in 2018 edition, or this year.
IK: Can we take a sneak peek on what will be the theme for next year?
RL: It is still being shaped and it will be based largely on the back of our experience this year. One of the things we do is to scan people into theatres because we want to know how many people are interested in a topic and we want to know who they are. And we use that information to help us shape our future agendas. So all that analysis will happen at the back of this Festival.
But clearly, there is a general and solid movement towards the biodata sphere and the challenge of how you structure and how you integrate and analyse the data, including genomics data. So it is very likely we will increase the amount of that kind of content in future festivals.
IK. Richard thank you very much! Just, to summarise, what would you say are the three key things that every event organiser should do to make a great event?
- Transparency – openness and honesty.
- Thorough research to get the right agenda.
- Have a purpose that you can be proud of.
About Richard Lumb
Richard Lumb, Founder and CEO of Front Line Genomics is a scientist and social entrepreneur with an unrelenting passion for the impact of science and technology in society.
His active interests are in genomics, precision, data science, drug development and healthcare. Richard has a wider interest in all disruptive, transformative technologies and how they converge to change society for the better, particularly those in most need of help.
Richard is mostly driven by his personal experience of losing a close family member to a serious illness. In 2009, his father died from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. That event changed his outlook on life.
Richard has spent much of his time since then working out how he can best contribute to progress in science and technology, to impact both medical advances and society-at-large.