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Lab Auto Exhibits Draw Brisk Traffic, Promote Integration

SAN JOSE, Calif., Feb. 4 (GenomeWeb News) - Robot arms whirred, lifting and stacking microplates for the audience of attendees strolling through the exhibition hall at the Lab Automation 2004 conference here at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

 

The conference moved this year from its former home in Palm Springs, Calif., largely to accommodate the vendors, which need room to display their large robotics devices.

 

Indeed, Velocity 11, a Palo Alto automation spinoff of Incyte, was "thrilled" that the conference moved to San Jose, as the proximity to their company made it possible to put on display a room-full of equipment, and for company engineers to drop by, Velocity officials GenomeWeb News.

 

Caliper Life Sciences, which has a strong presence at the show due to its acquisition of Zymark last year, is also taking advantage of the show's location to shuttle attendees to an open house of its Mountain Viewfacilities tonight.

 

This year's conference literature listed 218 companies, compared with 166 for 2002. (Exhibitor data were unavailable for this year, but this year's exhibit hall iss significantly larger than last year's.)

 

Most large vendors said traffic at the hall was more brisk compared with other shows. "There is more traffic than at [the Society for Biomolecular Screening Conference this fall]," said Alex James, a PerkinElmer representative. Not only did he attributed this to the location of the conference, but also to the fact that, "in the last quarter of the year, sales picked up."

 

The Association for Lab Automation, which organizes show, said it would not have official figures for attendance until late today or even tomorrow, as many Silicon Valley-area visitors are dropping by to register for single-day admittance.

 

The vendors' confidence in the growth of the lab-automation field was also evident in the high-end displays that some assembled. Amid the robot performances that many booths had, Thermo tried to rev up the scene with a race car-themed booth at the entry to the exhibit hall. Here, flat panel video screens blaired clips of speeding racecars, and toy cars spun around a race track at the center of the company's exhibit.

 

Nearby, Tecan took an approach to drawing visitors that was more PBS than ESPN: Leaf-shaped displays sprouted from the company's video screens, and booth reps were giving away tiny blue spruce trees in sealed tubes, in line with the theme "Grow with Tecan." The company launched three products at the show, including its Cellerity cell and protein production system, its Cavro XLP 6000 syringe pump, and its Safire 2 microplate reader.

 

By Tuesday night, small crowds had gathered around the Cellerity system, and one scientist from Novartis was busy videotaping it. "I've been with the company for 15 years and I've never seen such interest generated" by a single product, said Peter Siesel, a company vice president.

 

The system, which is selling for $500,000 to $700,000, is basically an automated cell factory, Siesel said. It is designed to enable pharma users to grow up cells for proteomics or screening on a programmed schedule. While Siesel admitted it is not the first automated cell factory on the market, he attributed the product buzz to the programmability aspect and the efficiency

 

Beckman Coulter, which was promoting its "New Solutions for Systems Biology," logo, employed an old trick to lure visitors: a pricey white mountain bike--which one raffle entrant will wheel away.

 

At the show, the company launched its Biomek 3000 robot, an upgrade from its Biomek 2000, in which the robot can pick up different heads for different functions--pipetting into 96-well plates or 384 well-plates, for example. Company representatives said an improvement in this version was the exact 9mm spacing between channels on the head for 384-well pipetting, as well as a pause feature on the robot, and new software that allows users to validate a procedure on one system, then transfer it to another one.

 

Beckman was also promoting its BioMek Fx, a two-armed robot that integrates a number of different functions in the lab. The idea, is that "we can automate genomics, cell biology, and proteomics," said Pauline Ngo, a company representative.

 

Along these lines, PerkinElmer also was touting two-armed robot systems, which officials said the company brought out to compete with Beckman and Caliper. Additionally, PE's cell-based assay workstation combined the EP3-a souped-up Beckman multi-mek--with the Envision plate reader.

 

This theme of combining different automation modules-either in lego-like arrangements or enclosed in a single cabinet--could be found throughout the exhibit hall, as the vendors seek to reflect the industry's move toward integration.

 

But some deemed that robots alone would be enough to attract attention to their booth-sometimes more than enough. In a far corner booth set up by Mitsubishi's American distribution arm, the display that looked like a leftover from a science fiction convention for dentists: A robotic arm leaned over a supine rubber mannequin with an open mouth (a la rescussi-Annie from Red Cross CPR training) and cleaned her teeth with a small buffing tool.

 

Automation? Yes. But not the kind of tool that pharma customers will take a shine to.