George E. Steares keeps an eye on Olympus' Scientific Equipment Group

Dec. 1, 2003
Interview by Dottie Dunham, Associate Editor

Dottie Dunham: Olympus Americas Scientific Equipment Group (SEG) is well recognized for its optical microscopes and microscope accessories, as well as a series of other components, cameras, image analysis software and other such products for laboratories. What trends in the clinical laboratory marketplace do you believe will influence the direction of the SEG in the next five years?

George E. Steares is group vice president for the Scientific Equipment Group of Olympus America Inc. Steares, a 30-year veteran of the microscope field, has been with Olympus since 1986 as marketing manager for the microscope division. Over the course of his career at Olympus, he has served as operations manager, procurement manager, strategic planning manager, director of marketing and customer service, and vice president of sales and marketing, all for the Scientific Equipment Group. Steares earned a B.A. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. A recent president of the Optical Imaging Association, Steares is also the head of the U.S. delegation on microscopes and optics to the International Standards Organization (ISO).George E. Steares: The same business trends influence us as influence the entire marketplace the consolidation of purchasers into various buying groups, the growth of core laboratories that will increasingly dominate over smaller labs, the shortages in trained personnel, and most of all, the necessity to meet ever-tighter financial constraints on laboratories. These trends mean we will have to deliver even better, easier-to-use and more cost-efficient instruments and systems over the next few years. Of course, there are technology trends, as well. In this area, increased sharing of images and data, particularly over the Internet, will shape our future. In addition, we will be developing and delivering imaging software with much-expanded capabilities to help gather data and statistics to support accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. Digital imaging and the Internet have permanently changed this industry, and we will be one of the manufacturers working in concert with our customers to help set the direction of that change.Dunham: Many laboratories worldwide rely on Olympus SEG for optical technologies. Can you review for us a few of the cutting-edge products SEG has recently introduced?Steares: Among our recent introductions have been new spinning-disk confocal microscopes, which enable researchers to obtain excellent optical sections through thick, living specimens. We also introduced the DP70 microscope camera, which captures 13 million pixels of information, and new Total Internal Fluorescence Microscopy systems that were a great breakthrough for researchers looking deep inside tissue. We have an extraordinary new line of stereo microscopes. And of course, Olympus continues to be a pioneer in ergonomics, so we have offered numerous refinements and developments in that area for all our products throughout the lab.Dunham: Research has progressed to the nano-level in molecular biology, testing the limits of microscopy. Discuss how this level of research has influenced Olympus SEG in developing products, and give us a window on those products.Steares: Nano-level research offers some advantages, as does work on the cellular level, where events can be seen. Often, our instruments are used to study the results of nano-level events, such as bursts of light, which are visible and, hence, require an optical microscope for observation and analysis. Our biggest area of research focus, though, is in exploring live-cell research. Scientists over the next few years will demand increasing sophistication in our ability to help them observe and record minute changes within living cells. Another area of importance is in genomic studies. Olympus has established an international corporate center for the genome, and much of that work is taking place within the SEG here in the United States. Dunham: What kinds of testing, information and services have been or might be generated by the SEG in response to bioterrorism threats? Has this stimulated any change in strategic planning within your company? Have current military operations around the world had any impact on the SEGs current strategy?Steares: The government is increasingly turning to microscopes, which provide fast, accurate analysis compared to other techniques, for response strategies involving potential bioterrorism. The concept is to deploy rapid field analysis, bringing the lab to the locale where the threat has presented itself, rather than having to transport contaminated samples to large-scale analytical equipment. Recently, the federal government purchased 50 Olympus systems, BX51 microscopes equipped with polarizing optics and fluorescence, for exactly this purpose the rapid identification of chemical or biological agents out in the field.Dunham: Concerning the issue of the shortage of clinical laboratory personnel, how does Olympus SEG provide solutions to boost throughput and raise accuracy for these professionals? We viewed a microscope at AACC earlier this year that involves use of the Internet, enabling lab professionals to share microscopic slides at a distance. How is this product, in particular, enhancing laboratory functions?Steares: The key to the future with systems like these remote diagnostic units is in digitizing information from the slide. Once the difficulties of the information channel have been dealt with, long-distance analysis is easily possible. In addition, consulting doctors can actually control the microscope via the Internet. These systems may be especially useful in inner city or rural labs that have a hard time finding qualified staff. They can also help standardize and streamline laboratory training and help senior staff oversee the work of individuals in satellite laboratories. Finally, they can be useful in the education of laboratory professionals, making it possible to handle class assignments from any location.Dunham: To what extent is education for the clinical laboratorian a part of the Olympus SEG program, and does Web-based activity play a role in that educational thrust?Steares: Olympus offers thousands of pages of information on its educational website, Just as important, we offer hands-on education through our support of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which uses hundreds of our microscopes in its training sessions each year. We also support well over 100 regional meetings annually, where training is provided to medical technologists and clinicians. We are proud of the tech support provided both by our highly trained team of salespeople and also through our network of dealers in the use, care, setup and maintenance of our microscopes. We teach users how to achieve the best results, which helps make it more cost effective to use our instruments. In the long run, this helps Olympus, as well as our customers.Dunham: Online communication with customers has expanded for the majority of companies. How does Olympus service its customer base via the Web? How has Internet communication changed the way Olympus does business? Does the company plan to expand such customer interaction in the future?Steares: The Internet has made it possible for international companies like ours to operate seamlessly around the globe, which has been great, both for our customers and us. Almost anything that a customer could want from us is now available on our website, from product manuals and technical information to brochures and educational materials. Some of our products are even sold online. We also have separate sites for our dealers to use to order products, manage their inventories and check deliveries. Our fellow organization, the Olympus Diagnostic Systems Group, which also services clinical laboratories, also offers services online to support laboratory customers. For instance, users of its laboratory analyzers can elect to receive all their tech updates and field information electronically instead of via hard copy, if they like. Of course, we are highly sensitive to privacy issues and believe very strongly that our customers and potential customers should have the right to control exactly what communications they receive from us. So, everything we do with customer communications and service online is on an opt-in basis.©
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