Insights

The Connected Lab – Driving Scientific Innovation

Why aim for a Connected Lab?

Katrina Costa, MA (Oxon), MSc
Science Writer, Open Pharma Research Ltd. December 2020

The world is becoming a web of interconnected devices. Our homes are filled with smart technology, robots and voice-activated assistants. The Internet of Things (IoT), with its “Enchanted Objects”, is growing in popularity. The IoT is not a new concept, the groundwork was being laid in the early 2000s, but now the size and cost of wireless radios has dropped dramatically. Today, Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity are built into many devices.

Science is no different – connectivity is now posing a paradigm shift in how scientists work with each other and laboratory equipment. Whilst partnering and Team Science are relatively new for pharma, collaboration is the future of life science R&D and a key component of the Lab of the Future. This was in evidence in 2020 as labs across the globe reimagine the way they work together to combat the current health crisis.

Traditionally, science has been performed across various sites using different equipment, or even in silos within the same building. Technologies to connect equipment are now commonplace – but there are still challenges. Enhancing lab connectivity will improve the efficiency of R&D and ultimately “free the scientists to do the science” (Zahid Tharia, Director, Open Pharma Research). We may even be looking at a future of robots (or collaborative robots/cobots) automating the science whilst the scientists are freed up for big picture thinking and problem-solving.

It is often very difficult to reproduce experiments accurately. Errors creep in as tired scientists have to enter high throughput data manually, but automation could remove this hurdle. Better connectivity could also improve stock tracking to reduce waste and lead to fewer expired or duplicated purchases of stock. Improved interoperability will also allow better compliance for regulation, better safety and quality of the data. There is so much movement of stock between labs and external providers, so connectivity will create a smoother workflow.

Challenges to the Connected Lab

There are numerous challenges to successfully connecting labs, including:

  • Safely opening firewalls and managing authentication to allow for connectivity over the Internet (whilst safeguarding data security)
  • Ensuring active compliance with standards
  • Interoperability
  • Staffing and training
  • Cost (it can be very high at an enterprise level)
  • Burden on IT

There is also an issue of vendor trust. Scientists need to know that the cloud-based server they choose can handle these issues better than they can themselves.

Interoperability is perhaps the main obstacle to a fully connected lab. Scientists are navigating a diverse digital world, and have to work with multiple technologies in a collaborative setting (figure 1). Data produced across all laboratory devices need to be easy to interoperate and use.

 

Figure 1: an overview of some of the common data sources for scientists.

Scientists capture the diverse data in databases and digital tools, but it is also vital to streamline the workflow – bringing the lab scientist and IT specialist together. Everyone across different parts of the organisation and in separate CROs needs to operate as a single team.

A useful starting point is having an integrated Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), so that reliable data can be effectively managed and shared throughout laboratories via the cloud.

 

Global collaborations at Genentech

At Genentech, 75% of staff members are external, so global collaboration is a priority. For them, working globally provides access to the best technology and resources, a smooth flow of data and compounds, and access to billions of chemicals. It is vital that any solution they use takes all of this into account, and is simple to implement and seamless. They want all product data to appear as if it were conducted at Genentech. So their technology needs heavy integration, and it is important to personalise their interactions and treat CROs as part of the team. The software they have taken on include gCOW (to take advantage of suppliers around the world), KRMS (lifecycle management of chemicals) and Ana2, an in-house data lake to give everyone access to FAIR data. Whilst COVID-19 has them thinking differently about how much can be achieved at home, they still recognise that innovation is better face-to-face.

The future of lab connectivity with Avantor

Central to the success of the connected lab is using digital technology to elevate the user experience in the lab. It requires active listening to the needs of scientists and getting them working closely with IT to implement these solutions.

Digital Collaboration

The human voice is a powerful tool for connecting the real and virtual worlds. At Avantor, they leverage the human voice with LabTwin, the world’s first voice and AI-powered digital lab assistant. Voice-powered digital assistants can allow scientists to:

  • Collaborate with colleagues, even at a distance
  • Query databases as they conduct experiments
  • Record observations in real time
  • Calculate quantities and reorder stock
  • Set reminders
  • Be guided through complex procedures

And it is very easy – a Bluetooth earbud connected to the scientist’s mobile phone. This is much more efficient than leaving the experiment to visit a workstation and enter the information manually into an ELN. It streamlines the workflow and saves time.

 

Augmented and Mixed Reality (AR and MR)

AR and MR technologies can bring long distance collaboration to the bench. An intriguing example of this is Holo4Labs, which won the Emerging Europe Award for Innovation in 2019. This technology connects Microsoft HoloLens to Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS software. It allows scientists to overlay digital content on the real world – a clear application of this is training. A remote expert can see through your eyes and guide your work, or overlay a virtual guidebook that annotates your world and what you need to be doing. This can facilitate remote teaching and remote co-working, which is even more valuable when social distancing measures are in place.

Smart Labels and QR Codes at Merck

Merck also recognises the importance of connectivity. They have teams distributed across more than five labs, each with a distinct purpose. “We couldn’t see behind the closed doors of neighbouring labs to save costs on resources” says Andreas Heidelberg, Director at Merck KGaA. Their inventory is also stored across 15 locations, including labs, fridges, cabinets and workbenches.

Merck found that much of this inventory was managed manually; in fact, 85% of scientists were using paper and Excel to manage consumable data. Manually managing this inventory was very time consuming, and they often came across duplicates of chemicals and expired substances. Moreover, 25% of the scientists’ time was spent managing consumables data. Imagine the possibilities of what they could achieve in innovation and discovery if they were able to liberate an extra 25% of their time.

They needed an open, single lab solution to enable them to work as a team and have better visibility of resources. To this end, they developed LANEXO, a Lab Inventory, Safety and Compliance Management System.

The purpose of LANEXO is to overcome these challenges:

  • Reduce wasted inventory
  • Reduce motion waste
  • Increase quality, safely and compliance
  • Accelerate digital transformation
  • Facilitate remote working
  • Reduce human transcription errors

 

Predictive Analytics and the IoT

The LANEXO system is very user friendly. Everything in the lab has simple RFID tags or QR codes that scientists can scan with an android or web app on their phone to track the real-time status of lab equipment and supplies. This enables them to manage inventory, location, stock levels and compliance.

Other opportunities for the lab include smart plugs to help with sustainability and reducing waste, as well as sensors for security and safety.

Cameras can also be used for visual recognition giving an update on the status of people and spaces and how they interact. And Artificial Intelligence (AI) can parse data and generate insights that drive decision making.

Where next?

The world of life science R&D is changing. As labs become digitally transformed, the flood of data needs to be effectively managed and the data sources interconnected. Pharma are working more closely across labs than ever before to drive innovation and drug discovery, especially during the current pandemic. This creates a huge demand for seamless and efficient remote collaboration. The IoT and smart technology present exciting opportunities to enhance the Connected Lab of the Future, with tools as simple and affordable as QR codes and mobile apps. As the technology advances, there will be greater opportunity to take advantage of more sophisticated tools such as voice-activated devices and cobots. All these systems enable the scientists to work faster and ultimately get drugs to patients quicker.

Further Reading

  1. How the Internet of Things is Affecting Laboratory Equipment. Lab Manager, May 2018
  2. How an Integrated LIMS Platform can Transform Drug Development and Manufacturing Workflows. ThermoFisher SCIENTIFIC, 11 May 2020