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As HCS Grows, So Does Number of Conferences. Can Young Industry Support So Many Meetings?


How many conferences are too many?

The number of high-content screening conferences has doubled each year since 2003, which is a sure sign that the marketplace and its discipline are gaining traction. But is there enough room in the nascent industry to support this 'me-too' strategy by conference planners?

In 2005, four international conferences are planned solely to cover high-content screening, compared with two that took place in 2004: Cambridge Healthtech Institute's High-Content Analysis, held in January in San Francisco; Marcus Evans Practical Experiences of High-Content Screening, held in June in London; Pharma IQ's High-Content Screening, to be held later this month in London; and IBC's High-Content Analysis, to be held in November in Washington, DC.

The latter two conferences are inaugural this year; Marcus Evans was in its second year; and the CHI conference, which has been strategically aligned with HCS pioneer Cellomics since its inception, held its third show this year.

Of course, this does not include scores of other conferences that, though not devoted to HCS, feature tracks or programs in the discipline. These include Screening Europe, the Society for Biomolecular Sciences, Drug Discovery Technology, the World Pharmaceutical Congress' Cell-Based Assays for HTS, IBC's ScreenTech/TargetTalk, Beyond Genome, and EmTech 2005.

"There comes a point where we're roaming the conference floor, and it's just vendors talking with vendors."

A quick scan of these agendas reveal the same kinds of presenters: assay development or high-throughput screening scientists from pharmaceutical companies; a few academic researchers working in drug discovery; and scientists or executives from high-content screening instrument or reagent vendors using the floor to promote their products.

As a result, some HCS vendors said certain conferences are not worth the money, time, or effort, choosing instead to focus on the one or two that tend to produce the best business contacts.

However, though the industry and its conferences remain too young to gauge participation or measure attendance, others may feel that the HCS space is growing rapidly enough that new potential customers in pharma and academia will continue to attend.

Applied Precision, for example, is one of the few companies to exhibit at almost every show. Joe Victor, senior vice president of life sciences for Applied Precision, told CBA News that his company has been hitting the conference circuit hard primarily because it has just entered the HCS market late last year with its CellWorx platform after several years of playing primarily in the microarray scanner business (see CBA News, 9/21/2004).

"We spent the last year doing a lot of marketing because we wanted to get the word out, but we also wanted to do some market research of our own," Victor said. "And we found in the first few conferences that we went to that those small targeted conferences, for the high-content analysis market especially, have probably been the most successful for us.

"As opposed to the big, long conferences — where there are visits from interesting people with long droughts in between — the smaller conferences are more targeted to the people we want to talk to. The quality of the contacts, and the number, is actually higher at these smaller shows."

Victor also said that this may not be true for all biotechnology markets; for instance, in the microarray industry, the bigger conferences may be more valuable.

"The smaller conferences are more targeted to the people we want to talk to. The quality of the contacts, and the number, is actually higher at these smaller shows."

Regarding high-content screening shows, "maybe this is because it's this fast-growing but embryonic market, where the people that are interested tend to come to these technically oriented conferences," Victor said.

Another product manager at a prominent high-content screening vendor, who asked to remain anonymous because his company co-sponsors several shows, told CBA News that there may already be too many conferences, thus diminishing their value.

"There comes a point where we're roaming the conference floor, and it's just vendors talking with vendors," said the product manager. "Smaller companies really can't afford to travel to all of these shows, so we have to be very selective in deciding which shows provide value and which do not.

"Often times it's just scientists at high-content screening companies patting each other on the back about their latest developments," he added.

Victor conceded that once his company has finished its full-scale product launch and garnered a core base of customers that it will then have to reassess where it puts it resources.

"We are in a product-launch mode, so we're definitely trying to take every opportunity to get the word out," he said. "As we go, we're going to get feedback from each one of these, and next year and the year after we're going to be looking carefully at which ones have been the best for our strategy and our products.

"If all of them are good, then we'll continue with all of them," he added. "My guess is that as people add more and more of these, one danger is that it becomes diluted, and we'll have to pick and choose."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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