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Photonics in: The Laboratory

Photonics Spectra
May 2000
hotonics makes light work of laboratory drudgery. The technology developed for big-spending labs will soon find its way to new -- and unexpected -- spin-off markets.

Dan Drollette, Senior Editor

We asked laboratory managers what features they look for in photonic equipment and what they expect to buy in the next few years. The laboratory market is fragmented, with scientists in different disciplines demanding different things. Nevertheless, some common trends occur:

* Genomics and pharmaceuticals account for most new photonic lab equipment purchases. In both areas, researchers want photonic systems that exhibit speed, accuracy and high throughput. Laboratory managers are willing to spend whatever it takes to get these qualities. "Money is not an issue; speed is," said a supplier. "They just throw money at the problem until it's solved. ... If it shaves a month off development time, it's worth it."

* Academic labs may do cutting-edge research, but they account for a small part of photonics purchases. However, this market is growing an estimated 20 percent per year. After a Nobel Prize was awarded for laser cooling, there was a "microexplosion" of equipment sold in that area, said Steven Smith of Coherent Inc., Laser Group, in Santa Clara, Calif. Users say they're interested in lasers featuring reliability, versatility, robustness and affordability.

* There is a trickle-down effect in the laboratory marketplace. For instance, a new technology to scan DNA chips with pulsed lasers will be used in genomics, then in pharmaceuticals a year or two later, said Charles Cantor, head of San Diego's genetic instrumentation company Sequenom Inc. Once the price drops, the equipment may find a niche in academia. "If they can get the price down to $100,000, then these can become benchtop devices and more prevalent in labs everywhere," said one scientist. "Now, just the big pharmaceutical companies can afford them."

These observations are supported by a market report conducted by High Tech Business Decisions of Moraga, Calif., in November 1999. The 700-page document, which surveyed 50 pharmaceutical and biotechnology laboratories, found that these industries spent $440 million on lab equipment last year. (Although the report did not divide this figure into photonic and nonphotonic components, President Sandra Fox said most of it is photonic.) Fox found that the average pharmaceutical or biotechnology laboratory spent $1 million on equipment last year, mostly for chemiluminescence and fluorescence screening. She said this type of equipment is not generally found in academic or government labs.

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