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Pittcon goes ahead despite coronavirus concerns

Product launches and champagne toasts at instrumentation conference bely worries about infection

by Craig Bettenhausen
March 4, 2020


The new coronavirus was on everyone’s mind at Pittcon, the scientific instrumentation conference that took place this week at McCormick Place in Chicago. In the halls, breezeways, and bars, scientists and instrument-firm executives took 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there to check in with one another about the latest on the disease.

Many booths sat empty with signs saying the exhibitor who’d reserved the spot was “Absent due to travel restrictions.” Companies small and large told C&EN that travel for their staff was down to a minimum.

“I’m here at this show because someone from China couldn’t make it,” said Bob Schuman, director of marketing and product management at KPM Analytics, which makes specialized instruments for food and agriculture markets. The local Chicago staffer had to visit three drugstores to find enough hand sanitizer to stock their booth, he said.

The firms at the show were mostly waiting to see what impact the virus would have on their businesses. Pete Brown of LGC Standards, a reference-materials supplier, said the company saw a big drop in sales to China in February but that the numbers for the past week looked better. Consumables sales often continue as long as people are allowed to go to work, he said, whereas sales of instruments and other large equipment are more sensitive to disruptions.

But coronavirus worries didn’t cancel Pittcon as it has other major meetings, such as the International Home & Housewares show that was scheduled for next weekend at McCormick Place or the American Physical Society conference for this week in Denver. Around 10,000 people were at Pittcon, officials said, down from 12,450 in 2019.

Trip Boehnke, CEO of the agricultural chemistry equipment maker Eberbach, was upbeat about the meeting. “I’d love to have more attendees,” he said, “but the show always pays for itself.” Boehnke soon excused himself to show off the firm’s cannabis mill to a potential customer.

Indeed, pot leaves abounded at the meeting, as instrument and consumables suppliers vied to supply the rapidly growing cannabis market. Relaxed regulations have made it easier to manufacture standard reference materials, which are needed to comply with local regulations, exhibitors said.

An announcement from the big instrument maker Shimazdu promoted its turn-key cannabis HPLC in part by saying, “It’s a script, it’s a cookbook. Customers with no analytical experience can operate this.”

Ease of use was a common theme among instrument makers at Pittcon. TA Instruments, a division of Waters, launched two user-friendly calorimetry instruments and one rheology analyzer at the show. The firm cited the need for nonspecialists and multidisciplinary scientists to be able to get good data from their instruments.

The mass spectrometry start-up Exum launched a self-contained, matrix-free, laser ablation time-of-flight instrument on the first day of the exhibition. “The foundation of all of this was to make something easy to use,” CEO Jeffery Williams said of the device’s smartphone-like user interface.

The instrument firm Waveguide won Pittcon’s Gold award for its handheld nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. “People don’t even need to know it’s an NMR,” CEO Nelson Stacks said. Waveguide sells the instrument for around $7,500, and then sells method development for specific applications for $1,000–10,000.

Ease of use can translate into time savings. Millipore Sigma hosted a press conference and champagne toast to celebrate the launch of its Lenexo inventory management system, which uses dedicated smartphones to replace manual inventory data entry. The firm says early user testing showed a drop of consumables handling time from 50 to 4 minutes on average per experiment.

“Today’s labs lag in digital-data capture compared with our personal lives,” said Sebastien Griesel, head of Millipore’s BSSN digital lab productivity business.

The instrumentation giant Thermo Fisher Scientific wasn’t at Pittcon this year but still made its presence felt via its planned $11.4 billion acquisition of the infectious disease diagnostics maker Qiagen, announced early on the first day of the expo.

The move continues Thermo Fisher’s recent habit of buying into diagnostics and will make it part of the response to the coronavirus disease. Qiagen has diagnostic kits in testing at four hospitals in China and one in France. The firm says it is applying for emergency authorization for its tool in Europe, China, South Korea, and the US.



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