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Daniel Wilson on Life Sciences and the Future of Pittcon

Daniel Wilson
Managing Director
Clark Laboratories

Orlando, Fla. — Daniel Wilson is an analytical chemist and has a full-time position as managing director of Clark Laboratories, a Pittsburgh-based contract research organization that was spun off from US Steel last year. And, since 2002, he has been groomed to serve as the 2005 president of Pittcon, or, formally, the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy.

So, this week, Wilson wears a suit, has a radio on his hip, and occupies a huge windowless room with desks and a couch in the interior of the Orange County Convention Center here as the 56th annual conference unfurls, and thousands of show-goers — and even more vendors — shuttle through the mammoth show floor and the conference rooms — all directed by a professional staff augmented by a large crew of volunteers.

The show revolves around the analytical chemistry industry and applications, but that market is changing and the tools developed for use in chemical and analytical applications are making the leap to life sciences research.

BioCommerce Week spoke with Wilson this week about the show, and the role of the life sciences in it.

What is the market that Pittcon represents?

It has traditionally been an analytical chemistry show for people using analytical chemistry tools. But, I think a lot of them now aren't analytical chemists — they are life scientists, material scientists.

So, is the market changing?

I think it is. I have worked for a couple of big industrial companies in my career. Over time, they have just decreased the number of analytical chemists that they have. People who are working in a plant doing analysis are now not trained chemists. The managers are engineers, because that is who is hired by, in my case, metals companies. They hire engineers to run their plants and the people who are running the samples are labor. They are people who are putting in samples and hitting a button and getting a number. Because of that, we see our traditional market shrinking. While we see at the same time, the new advances in analytical instrumentation are coming in the life sciences, and we see a lot of life scientists using analytical instrumentation. I don't think there is a good trade show for them and we think that we hope to be that.

I think we have seen some of that happen. Some of our big exhibitors are bringing more life sciences equipment than they used to. We have definitely made an effort to appeal to life scientists more than we have in the past with the technical program, trying to get at those areas as well as our more traditional technical program areas. And, in our marketing efforts we are advertising in journals that are more geared toward the life sciences, and looking for mailing lists that would be appropriate for the life sciences.

Do you feel like you have been successful in this?

Yes, but I think we wish we were more successful. I don't have those numbers for you, but I know that from say, 2000 to 2003, we saw a significant increase in people who consider themselves in what we are calling our life sciences areas. When you register, you tick off the box for what field you work in. Do we have a ways to go? Yeah, we do.

You do this as a volunteer [in addition to] your regular position, and your wife, Annette, will be the program chairman for next year. Why?

Well, the way that a lot of us get drawn into this that the conference is owned by two local technical societies in Pittsburgh [The Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh and The Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh]. What those two societies do is basically take the proceeds of the conference and distribute them for science education — that ranges from elementary schools all the way through to continuing science education programs for both technical people and non-technical people. So it is a really good feeling when you are helping to fund a program that is bringing in a hundred middle school kids on a Saturday to see spectroscopy demonstrations. That is how we all got started, I would say. When you are active in that, you get drawn into the Pittsburgh Conference side of it. We think it is a service to the industry.

What industry?

Well, traditionally, the analytical chemistry industry, the instrumentation industry, and science in general. The proceeds, the funds we distribute, those are for general science. We will give awards to physics teachers, biology teachers, and for computers.

What are the proceeds?

Between the two societies and the conference, it probably gets close to $1 million.

What does it cost to run Pittcon?

We don't give out that information. Our costs are lower than most conferences because we have so many volunteers working with us. We can get better deals because people like to work with us because we are a non-profit — but not for the convention center. We have speakers come who will donate their time. Our registration fees are low for a conference like us and we think our booth fees are on the low side as well compared to our competitors. But it's kind of funny, the Pittsburgh Conference is about the same sized business for one week that the little laboratory is that I work for in the whole year.

Is there competition?

There are a lot of smaller shows in specialized fields. There are more regional shows that do something similar to us but not anything on the same scale.

Is there any concern about the future of the show?

Well you have to be concerned about the future of any organization. Frankly, right now, the last several years have not been good for trade shows. We have seen ourselves get a little smaller, but nowhere near what the average is for trade shows, and certainly not the huge losses that some trade shows have seen in attendees and exhibitors. I think we are all concerned about the legacy about the future of the conference. I'm done being president at the end of this year, but I'll still be involved in the conference. We have about 30 living former presidents who still work for the conference committee. They come down here for the week, they help out during the year with things like marketing and things like advice to the presidents on things that have worked well before and what the best way is to do things.

I talked to one vendor who has been here for 22 years. Is that unusual?

This is our 56th year. One of the things we do is acknowledge exhibitors who have been with us for 50 years. And we are up to, this year, off the top of my head, 15 to 20, who have been with us for 50 years. Now, maybe they have changed names — they started off as ARL and now they are part of Thermo — but they have been here that long. And, the other thing is, we do service awards for our volunteers. There are 100 committee members who put on the show. In January, I gave two different committee members their 40-year service awards. That's pretty impressive to me, to be a volunteer for 40 years with an organization.

What are the hot areas this year?

We have some homeland security issues that are real popular. We had a two symposiums yesterday on those kinds of issues and they were well-attended. We have found since 9/11 that those type of topics draw a lot of people — chemical weapons detection, biological weapons detection, food safety — both from a health standpoint but also from a terrorism standpoint. We have [had] symposia in the past on microarrays and things like that that have been really well attended.

Do you think the life sciences really offer an opportunity for growth for the conference?

Yes, I think so. We look at it too, frankly, as can we hold our own and grow by expanding our market, but also, can we provide a service to that market that they don't have elsewhere so that it is worth it for them to come.

What is the mix of vendors to attendees?

We end up 50-50, conferees to exhibitors, people who actually came here. A person who is registered as an exhibitor has access to everything that a conferee would have. Some of the other tradeshows I've been to, you can't do that. So, people who are registered as exhibitors are often here as conferees too. So, I think, in our case, that number is a little deceiving.

Do you see competition from the Florida tourist attractions, and the weather?

I came down here for an industrial hygiene tradeshow, exhibiting for my company. And their floor was dead by 2 o'clock. You really saw it there. Compared to that, we have excellent traffic.

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