Does anyone know what 2009 holds?

Heading for LabAutomation 2009 in Palm Springs, I was sure I would get a pulse on what folks in the industry felt about the financial crisis. But if I went with plenty of questions, I probably came back with a whole bunch more.

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Considering all that has happened in the past few months, the inauguration of a new president and the ongoing financial meltdown that seems to leave no industry spared, it was with great anticipation that I packed my bags and headed for DDN's first big conference of the year: LabAutomation 2009 in Palm Springs, Calif.

Here, I was sure I would get a pulse on what folks in the industry felt about how the financial crisis is affecting and will continue to affect the tools, equipment and reagents providers to folks researching potential new therapeutics.

But if I went with plenty of questions, I probably came back with a whole bunch more, because as I asked representatives from company after company what they saw for the coming year in terms of business, I got an almost singular response: "We don't know."

Even public companies, mindful of their avid followers (AKA analysts) are at a loss to keep them well-informed. In a press conference held the last week of January, Agilent Technologies' Nick Reolofs, vice president and GM of the life sciences solutions unit, said the company had not provided guidance for Q2.

More starkly: Agilent's second quarter began the first day of this month.

Lest you think all was doom and gloom for 2009, I can tell you that it wasn't. While most would say they didn't know what the year would hold, nearly in the same breath, company executives would also add this: "We think everything is going to be OK."
By this, they would explain, the broad hope was for a flat 2009 or at least one that wouldn't decline by more than a few percentage points in revenue compared with last year.

In addition to the uncertainty of overall demand for products and how that would affect the bottom line, were concerns over currency exchange rates. Since the beginning of this debacle, the dollar, which had been steadily losing ground for the better part of two years, has made significant gains over the past six months.

What kind of currency fluctuations might we see if a recovery begins? No one knows. That means if you are a European company that does significant business in the U.S. and the dollar continues to strengthen against the Euro, well, tough luck. Of course American companies who've suffered through the past couple of years with a dollar whose value was in the toilet might feel it's their turn to benefit.

So in short, the mood for 2009 was guarded confidence that this industry, unlike many others, would not take a body blow.

Further, even among all the shrugged shoulders, there did emerge a common thread—a silver lining perhaps—of where business opportunities may lie this year, and that is in academia.

At booth after booth, I heard it. This is probably based on a couple of factors.
First, more companies are bringing to market benchtop systems in a number of research areas and, in the process, bringing the cost of entry down from six figures and higher into the $30,000 to $50,000 range per tool.

Second, there is a feeling among some that Big Pharma may turn increasingly to academia to forge research partnerships in the coming years, such as the recent Janssen Pharmaceutica-Vanderbilt University pact.

But will there be enough business in this area to smooth out any bumps in the broader commercial market? You guessed it: I don't know. DDN

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