Therapeutic Dose: Reforesting Innovation

Trade show consolidation can be a good thing, at least when it gives smaller innovator companies room to grow.

By Emil W. Ciurczak, Contributing Editor

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While watching recent NOVA episodes on PBS, I found myself cheering about the recovery of forests around Mt. Saint Helens following its massive eruption, and about how sustainable teak cutting was allowing rainforest growth to continue without destroying surrounding trees. It’s no surprise that these vignettes tickled my scientific interest. After all, I was an Eagle Scout, and I did teach environmental science.

However, they also reminded me of changes that have taken place at Pittcon, the nation’s largest analytical equipment exposition and conference. The form of this year’s show was notably different. There were wider pedestrian walkways, one large area in the center of the floor for posters and another for “resting” with chairs, tables, and snack centers. The numbering of aisles also started at “700,” not “100,” perhaps to make the number of aisles seem greater than actually existed.

On top of this, several large companies have shifted to an every-other-year mode, alternating between exhibiting at Pittcon and Analytica (Europe). Some of the “biggies” using this approach had downsized their booths. As a “glass-half-full” type of guy, I see this development as pretty positive.

“How?” you may ask. Since 1971, when I began attending Pittcon (in lovely downtown Cleveland . . . it was lovely back then and, from what I understand, the town has come back), I have seen some interesting changes. In Cleveland, the massive, two-dimensional booths were not as common; the major manufacturers did have a larger number of booths, but seldom interrupted your casual stroll through “wonderland.” (OK, so I’m a geek who loves instruments.)

The centrally located estates seemed to appear when Pittcon moved to Atlantic City and beyond. To put this in context, over this same time frame, liquid chromatographs went from complete units to individual components, then back to integrated units again . . . I won’t mention padded shoulders, wide ties, bell bottoms, facial hair, and disco dancing.

The other change worth noting is the way in which “real estate” was allotted to vendors. After a decade of each Exposition Committee trying to outdo the previous group—anyone remember the Encyclopedia booth? Or the custom chocolates? Or any of the other “fillers” that cluttered the floor back then?—by just adding more and more booths, the number simply stopped growing. Short of selling cars and flowers in booths, they seemed to have run out of clients. There also developed a segregation of the “established” vendors and the newcomers.

Somewhere during the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, the smaller, new (or foreign-based) vendors were placed at the far end of the hall. I once jokingly referred to the area as a “Hooverville” or shanty-town outside a city in a developing country.

However, something interesting (other adjectives have been used) happened around 2005-2006: the economy started into a downturn and fewer companies 1) sent scientists to the meeting; and 2) continued to purchase equipment as rapidly as they had in the past. When  pharmaceutical companies started massive layoffs (been there; done that), it seemed foolish to send the same numbers of attendees to Pittcon or any meeting, for that matter. Pair this trend with younger scientists using the Web, anyway, and the numbers got even smaller.

With less ROI for a massive presence at conferences, coupled with well-designed and informative websites, the larger instrument manufacturers have decreased their booth footprints. (Now, the forest references may make some sense.) A smaller conference (despite what its organizers may claim) with more floor space seems to be having an effect similar to the reforestation that occurs after a forest fire: small “plants” were exposed to sunlight, didn’t fight for nutrients, and got rain first-hand. In the case of smaller vendors, they were discovered more easily, reached more easily, and the attendees weren’t exhausted and could spend more time.

For several years, I have been asked by Pharmaceutical Manufacturing editors to report on neat, new instruments. Consequently, the first time I enter the Exhibit Hall (usually 9:00 a.m. on Monday), I hop on the tram and head to the “high-number” district. That is, I ride to the far end (usually to the right) and look for gems.

There is where I find the new American vendors, vendors from France, China, Japan, and dozens of other countries. Why go there first? I am fresh, so I can take more time in each booth AND, even if these companies have websites, who knows they exist to look at them? The short and long of it is that, yes, you can check out the major players online, but, they do not have all the new ideas. You need to have, to borrow an old Army term, “boots on the ground” to see what is truly new. Conferences are still worth attending: the future lives there, and we see this future in some of the smaller innovator companies. For my report on this year’s conference, visit PharmaManufacturing.com and PharmaQbD.com.

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