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TIGR to Hand Off GSAC to Venter Institute; Hilton Head Next Site

NEW YORK, Oct. 25 (GenomeWeb News) - The Institute for Genomic Research has handed over the reigns to its flagship Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference to the J. Craig Venter Institute, according to Craig Venter.

Venter, who founded GSAC 16 years ago, said "conference planning and organization" for the meeting "will be transitioning from TIGR to the new Venter Institute." 

The 17th annual meeting will be held in Hilton Head, SC, on Oct. 17-20, 2005.

"Genomics has been a dynamic and exciting field in which to be a researcher," Venter wrote in an undated letter to conference organizers, which GenomeWeb News obtained last week. The letter was sent to organizers on Oct. 21. "As such you may have noticed some changes over the last three years in content of the meeting to reflect the new directions in genomics."

The letter does not identify these "changes." However, Heather Kowalski, a spokesman for the  Venter Institute, said "Craig and the [conference-organizing] team have been expanding the focus of GSAC over the last several years to include areas like environmental genomics, human genomic medicine and new sequencing technologies."

As  GenomeWeb News reported earlier this month, TIGR "decided not to move forward" with a 17th installment. "Alas, we have come to the end of an era," Amy Rabin, TIGR's conference manager, wrote in an e-mail to participating vendors on Oct. 8.

Kowalski, who is also vice president for policy and planning at the Rockville, Md.-based Venter Institute, said the change in management is superficial. "Many people both internally and externally have referred to GSAC as 'Craig's meeting,'" she wrote in an e-mail to GenomeWeb News last week. "Thus, while the conference staff was housed at TIGR, the meeting's vision and direction has always come from Craig himself.

"The past three meetings (since the inception of the new organizations now known as the Venter Institute), much of the agenda planning, speaker selection, etc. has been done within this group with Craig," Kowalski went on. "It simply made sense this year to formalizing the move of GSAC into the Venter Institute now that this organization has grown and has the staff, etc."

She said the move did not warrant board approval either from TIGR or from the Venter Institute.

"GSAC and the goals of the conference will remain the same--bringing the leading experts in various areas of genomics together with researchers in the field to discuss their work," Kowalski wrote in her e-mail.

She said the new organizers would "like to limit the conference to approximately 500 attendees to create a much more intimate setting like it was in the early days of the conference." She added: "Just as genomics is a dynamic field, GSAC will reflect this and change with the times."

Cost-Benefits

TIGR spent around $1.3 million on GSAC in 1999, or 8 percent of the $15.8 million it spent on all its conferences during the year, according to a tax return TIGR filed with the Internal Revenue Service for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 1999. There were "more than" 2,300 attendees at the meeting, TIGR said in the IRS filing.

By comparison, it spent just over $1 million, or 6.6 percent of total conference expenditures, on the 1998 meeting, according to TIGR's tax return for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 1998. "More than" 1,860 attendees went to this meeting, TIGR said.

TIGR did not disclose its GSAC expenditure for fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2000, which would have included the 2000 meeting, or for fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2002, which would have included the 2002 meeting. GSAC was not mentioned in TIGR's tax return for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2001.

The 2000 meeting had "more than" 2,400 attendees, while the 2002 conference accommodated "more than" 2,000 attendees, TIGR said.

Though GSAC has in the past been considered the seminal gathering for genome sequencing researchers and the tool vendors that supply their labs, GSAC has suffered dwindling attendances over the past couple of years.

Venter, TIGR's current chairman, said during his opening remarks to attendees of this year's meeting that the conference would accommodate 500 attendees. In fact, he said meeting organizers decided to cap the attendee headcount at 500. The number never reached that height: It was estimated that 460 people registered to attend the meeting -- including the 29 exhibitors and the handful of staffers manning booths.

GenomeWeb, publisher of GenomeWeb News, has been a commercial sponsor of the event since 2000.

"The program was phenomenal," TIGR President Claire Fraser told GenomeWeb News during this year's gathering, which took place in Washington, DC, Sept. 27-30. "Too bad the attendance is not what it used to be."

Exhibitor grumbles echoed gripes from previous years: "Booth traffic seems slower," Barb Grossmann, a GE Healthcare official, said at her company's booth during the meeting. GSAC organizers "want to pull back from the commercial side."

"They succeeded," added her booth companion, John Schneider.

GSAC has been faced with the challenge of changing its identity in recent years. How does an annual meeting built on gene sequencing -- a relative novelty when the conference was founded 16 years ago -- thrive in an environment where gene sequencing is commonplace, and new innovations demand center stage?

The kinds of presentations at this year's meeting reflected this challenge. The brunt of the talks devoted to gene sequencing -- which had enjoyed top billing at past GSACs -- were relegated to the tail end of the conference. Instead, leading this year's meeting were reports on environmental genomics, complete with an update by Venter on his nautical sojourn.

A TIGR official did not return multiple telephone calls seeking comment.

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