The phrase "Let's do lunch" has taken on a new meaning over the past five years in the Indiana life sciences community.
Since 2003, a who's who of the biotechnology, medical device, pharmaceutical and other fields have gathered at the downtown law offices of Barnes & Thornburg LLP to meet and eat at the Life Sciences Lunch Series.
A collaborative effort of the law firm and the Indiana Health Industry Forum, the monthly event provides a networking and education platform for life sciences professionals. Attendees are treated to a free lunch and presentations by industry leaders.
Topics run the gamut from financing, economic development, policy reform, marketing and education to medical technology, clinical trials and specific research-and-development topics. Next month, for example, the discussion will focus on juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Those not within walking or driving distance of downtown Indianapolis need not miss out on the get-together. The presenta tions are broadcast live to 14 Barnes & Thornburg offices in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C.
"There's no question it's a real asset for what's taking place in the state," IHIF President and CEO Mike Brooks said. "It provides a monthly opportunity to network and gain knowledge of topics in the life sciences sector."
Held the third Tuesday of each month, the lunches are the brainchild of Barnes & Thornburg partner Donald Knebel and for- mer IHIF chief Wade Lange, now president and CEO of locally based ImmuneWorks.
For Knebel, it was a way to promote an industry in which his firm had a direct interest through numerous client relationships.
"It seemed to me several years ago that Barnes & Thornburg had a stake in the continued success of the life sciences industry," said Knebel, chairman of the firm's intellectual property, technology and biotechnology departments.
To date, Barnes & Thornburg and IHIF have held 71 lunches, costing the two organizations about $12,000 a year.
No one can say for sure what type of results the lunches have produced. "For all I know, deals have been made [at the lunches], but we don't keep track of that," Knebel said.
"Ultimately, that's not the issue, he added. "We succeed only if the economy of the states we do business in succeed. If Indiana fails as a state or an economy, we will suffer from that."
There is no doubt, according to Lange, that the events are popular dates on the business calendar. "The best sign of that is the crowd in the room at Barnes & Thornburg," he said. "It's full every month."
At the beginning, organizers were happy to host 30 or 40 attendees. Now, it's considered a disappointment if at least 100 don't show. Most times, Knebel said, the turnout reaches 150 to 200.
Monthly registration is capped at 200 due to the capacity of Barnes & Thornburg's conference room. For now, organizers don't have plans to find larger accommodations.
Another barometer for success is the fact that speakers at first had to be recruited. Now, volunteers are coming forth and asking to be put on the agenda.
The decision was made early on to include participants from outside of central Indiana, highlighting the importance of the life science sector in other parts of the state and beyond, Knebel said. "It's given the state a sense of community in our life sciences effort, so it's not just about Indianapolis," he said.
The event is now broadcast in Bloomington, South Bend, Elkhart, West Lafayette, Muncie, Fort Wayne, Evansville, Merrillville, Richmond and Terre Haute, as well as Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Although those attending the event at the satellite locations are unable to take advantage of all the networking opportunities, the lunches give those communities an opportunity to form their own networking groups.
In addition, attendees are able to listen to the presentations and ask questions afterward.
"It's a great opportunity to learn more about what's going on around the state," Brooks said.
The growth of the lunch series directly reflects the expansion of the life sciences community itself. A fledgling sector just a decade ago, the industry has taken off by leaps and bounds thanks in part to targeted economic development efforts.
IHIF, once known as the Central Indiana Life Sciences Initiative, and BioCross roads, a public-private entity, both support the life sciences industry in Indiana, along with several regional organizations around the state.
Those efforts appear to be paying off.
A 2006 report from the BioTechnology Industry Organization ranked Indianapolis as the ninth-largest metropolitan area for life sciences jobs at more than 24,000. Indiana is one of the top four states in the number and concentration of life sciences jobs.
The Life Sciences Lunch Series may prove to be a small but critical part of that growth. "The lunches have mirrored the growth [of the Indiana life sciences industry], and I hope I can say it's helped inspire the growth," Knebel said.