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ALA and SBS propose to merge as SLAS
CHICAGO & DANBURY, Conn.—For those in the pharmaceutical discovery and development world who belong to professional scientific societies or make the annual life sciences conference and exhibition scene, two names tend to dominate the consciousness: the Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS) and the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA).
But soon there may be only one name—the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS)—because ALA and SBS have, as of March 15, announced a proposal to merge the two groups into a single organization.
The idea is to broaden offerings to their members and better reach a global audience, while also gaining greater operational and financial efficiencies. At the same time, each organization wants to keep the identity of its respective membership alive and well. In the end, as the two organizations suggest in the animated banner at the top of their merger Web site at www.SBS-ALAmerger.org, the result isn't to make an organization that is just as good as either or even twice as good, but to create some new math and have 1 + 1 = 3.
"Our organizations have such complementary missions that coming together on a broader level will expand our global reach and influence," says Dr. Malcolm Crook, ALA's president. "Through the alliance we can leverage each other's strengths to achieve international significance and attract new members who offer increased diversity of knowledge and experience."
Assuming it all comes together as planned—and the SBS-ALA merger awaits membership approval via a proxy voting process—Crook and Dr. Jeff Paslay, president of SBS, say, "SLAS will become the premier international community dedicated to advancing scientific research and discovery through laboratory technology."
One of the key advantages of a merger, ALA and SBS note, will be that members of each group will have a much broader set of opportunities for education in terms of sharing information, gaining new learning and networking with peers. And the aim is to make that even broader still by advancing a more worldwide agenda.
"By coming together under one umbrella organization, both organizations can leverage each other's strengths to achieve global significance and attract new members who offer increased diversity of knowledge and experience," says Jason Abbas, ALA's treasurer. "Over time, the breadth, depth, quality, and significance of benefits will strengthen and grow. Among them is the potential to streamline operational costs and increase efficiency. Operational cost efficiencies contribute to a sound financial foundation for organizational maintenance and growth."
Some of those efficiencies would likely come with a consolidation of office space and staff members, most likely in the Chicago area.
"Both organizations have various obligations, so nothing is going to happen right away. We'll know more over the next 12 to 18 months," says Paslay, who is vice president of screening sciences in the Research Centers of Emphasis at Pfizer. "We'll know the outcome of the membership vote in May and are targeting the subsequent merger—if the vote goes that way—happening in July, and between July of this year and the end of 2011, we hope to have a full assessment of how best to organize the infrastructure, locate our staff and deliver services to members."
That gradual approach also means that members and other interested parties will still have two conventions to consider in 2011. Planning for the SBS 17th Annual Conference & Exhibition and for LabAutomation2011 are already well underway, and neither event will be canceled or even scaled back. If anything, should SLAS become a reality, each meeting would actually get some added depth, with sessions focused on topics from the other organization.
Another efficiency will be in the involvement of members in volunteer roles, Paslay says, and there will be better utilization of those people, as well as better utilization of companies with which ALA and SBS currently interact.
"We'll be able to place people better in positions where they can have the largest impact. There isn 't a lot of overlap in our membership rolls—not all that many people are members of SBS and ALA—but what you find is that at companies, there are people who are members of each organization," he points out. "We'll be better able to tap those human resources as well as focus better on the time that people, and companies too, can give our organization as a single entity rather than two separate ones."
At the same time, while the goal is ideally to merge, no one is seeking to homogenize the membership, nor shoehorn current members into missions or goals with which they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. In fact, SLAS would have two arms. The Biomolecular Sciences Section would carry the same mission as SBS does: Advancing the science and technology of drug discovery and the use and development of biomolecular screening technology. Similarly, the Laboratory Automation Section's mission would mirror the ALA's mission of advancing science and education related to laboratory automation.
One positive attribute that members should see immediately after the merger will be a much broader network of colleagues with whom to interact, and not just in different areas of pharma and biotech but in agro-chemical, clinical diagnostics, energy and consumer products, Paslay says.
"There will also be cost efficiencies for members, as they can continue to be in their ALA or SBS arm, or get a membership that includes access to both," he adds. "For each individual member, the experience with SLAS can be as different as they want, or as similar to having been in ALA or SBS was before. That's a choice that every member can make on his or her own."
"Members can take advantage of those things they always have before, and have more besides," adds Abbas, who is a research scientist at Syngenta. "One thing SBS members would see is a reduction in annual dues. They would also benefit from ALA's LabAutopedia wiki, the ALA journal and newsletters. ALA members would be able to take advantage of programs to which they previously didn't have access, as well as the SBS journal, newsletters and special interest groups."
Membership by contribution is something new that both memberships would benefit from, Abbas notes, whereby those serving in volunteer leadership roles or publishing significantly in the journals would have free membership for the corresponding year.
"There will be an organization that may look a little different, but will be very responsive to the various needs of members," he continues. "There will be a single board and multiple committees, but also a virtual business office model where the two sections will have their own executive councils that would report their needs to the SLAS board of directors."
The SLAS board and the various committees and working groups would include leaders from both the SBS and ALA section, Abbas notes, so that the two sections will be linked strongly, but also maintain their different identities.
"The educational missions and preservation of benefits have been at the forefront of all of this, even as we look at growth and added opportunities," Abbas says. "This is a unique opportunity for both SBS and ALA to not only come together and share together while working toward a common vision, but also to work together more efficiently and ultimately succeed together."
Roots of a merger
The process of the proposed merger of ALA and SBS began some 18 months ago, at a time when both organizations were already reassessing their directions and goals, says Dr. Jeff Paslay, president of SBS.
"Most organizations, whether for-profit or non-profit, go through strategic planning sessions, and both the ALA and SBS in 2008 were looking to refresh their strategic goals for the next three to five years," he relates. "In the course of that planning, the presidents of both organizations at the time happened to cross paths. They realized that both organizations had developed relationships with other conference providers and other societies that were operating globally, and we decided that we should talk about how to better work together."
From that point of contact between the two presidents and the ALA and SBS boards considering the issue, they created a working group of four select members from SBS and four select members from ALA at the 2009 ALA meeting. Over the course of six months, they came to the agreement that both societies merged as one organization would add the most value to current and future members in addition to meeting common strategic goals. They made the proposal in the third quarter of 2009 to both boards, and the organizations completed due diligence with both boards approving the proposal and taking the plan to the respective memberships for approval.
"So, it's probably been a year of discussions and developing what we thought the best relationship would be, and both groups believe the merged organization will make a significant impact on what we offer to members," he says. "One of the key goals of both organizations had been to broaden the diversity of our members inside and outside of the pharma, biotech and diagnostics worlds; to establish a larger global presence; and to expand the types of services we could offer—and the merger makes all three of those goals more easily achievable and more likely to be successful."