Labfolder, the Berlin-based startup that is reinventing the traditional paper lab notebook, recently held a meetup at the Merck Innovation Center in Darmstadt, inviting leading German companies in the labtech innovation space to give their take on the “lab of the future”.
With the rise of new technologies transforming how we approach Big Data, digitization of the lab space is, therefore, the next step which many academic teams, biotech SMEs and Big Pharma firms are now addressing – if they haven’t already.
Opening with an introduction from Dr. Andreas Heidelberg, Head of New Technologies in R&D at Merck, he discussed how it’s time we put down the paper notebook for good.
“It’s very important from a business point of view – as well as an operational point of view – what the lab of the future looks like,” he explained.
However, there are various obstacles to the switchover which has made the uptake of digital platforms like laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) slower than anticipated. Identifying these three key barriers to the adoption of LIMS and ELNs – usability, interoperability (standardization) and culture – Dr. Florian Hauer, COO & Co-founder of labfolder, explained why the penetration of these digital tools is still behind schedule.
Adoption of programming languages like AnIML, centralized platforms based on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), different strategies to overcome these barriers were therefore explored in talks by Dr. Dominic Lütjohann, CEO & Co-founder of cubuslab, a startup providing solutions for connectivity and automation of workflows in the lab, and Burkhard Schaefer, Managing Director of BSSN Software, a vendor-independent informatics developer.
So what are these barriers to digitization, and why do they still persist 50 years after the invention of the first LIMS?
While the technology for these tools has existed a long time, their mass uptake is only happening now due to the amount of data being available and produced in labs, explained Dr. Hauer. For example, the high-throughput capabilities in drug discovery and QA/QC analyses generate huge amounts of data, making manual data entry and transfer more challenging, time-consuming and error-prone.
Still, despite this trend, a majority of the scientific community still hold onto their paper notebooks, even in 2017. However, although this may seem like low penetration of the technology, an increasing number of research institutions are actively looking for a platform to adopt. Therefore we need to address the usability of the software, the need to homogenize connectivity between devices in a lab – sometimes purchased from over 20 different manufacturers – with the software and the paper lab book culture.
One key angle which labfolder takes to tackle these barriers is by offering implementation services, rather than just acting as a vendor for a software license. These services include different strategies for the many different subgroups of personnel within the lab – from technicians to management – and evaluation of how to integrate existing research.
“Legacy software is a big problem, which is why the cloud is considered to be one of the key innovation drivers,” Dr. Hauer added.
It’s a Big Data revolution we’re witnessing, and to make tech like AI really work we need large amounts of structured data with robust sharing mechanisms and screening processes in place.
Blockchain would be a great platform to do this, with a multi-authority management of databases which helps reproducibility of experimental data and allows partial controlled sharing with partners. Another approach to improving connectivity within the lab is connecting all instruments and devices in the lab to an IoT platform, to allow anyone to monitor experiments and access data, securely and in real-time.
As the CEO of cubuslab, Dr. Dominic Lütjohann explained how the Karlsruhe based-startup wants to create a digital backbone for all those crucial interactions in the lab based on an IoT structure – much like a nervous system. Adding functionalities like voice or gesture commands – or the already existing barcode scanners for reagents and samples – would all link to a third party ELN for data storage.
“Creating an audit trail for these kinds of transactions is also extremely valuable for integrity purposes,” he added.
Additionally, an IoT system is great for scalability and for monitoring of an experiment using multiple devices across one setup – something which would not be possible if three different software platforms from different vendors were used.
This was evident in the smartLAB project, where 15 German companies – labfolder included – came together to demonstrate how an IoT platform would work in the lab.
Next, Burkhard Schaefer, Managing Director of Darmstadt-based BSSN Software came to give his opinion on methods for a truly digital lab.
Schaefer talked about how to do this, you need two things: communication and data exchange. Without both of these, you can end up with data silos due to proprietary data structures. The SiLA initiative is one example of an effort to improve communication, by attempting to standardize the many software platforms in lab automation.
Then there is AnIML – analytical information markup language. AnIML was put together by a consortium of academics and industry software developers to provide an open-source XML format for data exchange.
“AnIML is not tied to a specific industry but is open to everyone for a level playing field. Since it uses XML as the underlying format, this opens up thousands of tools off the shelf for use,” Schaefer explains.
Together AnIML and the SiLA initiative work together to improve accessibility and move towards end-to-end integration of any analytical instrument in the lab.
At the end of the meetup, the speakers came together for a roundtable discussion to debate solutions to the generation divide in the lab, compatibility of the LIMS and ELNs with smartphones, security of the cloud and other means to democratize digitization. There remain many open questions, such as to how regulators might approach much more disruptive innovation in the lab space – like such as with new technologies like AI – as opposed to incremental changes. Watch this space as labfolder, cubuslab and BSSN Software are paving the way towards a new laboratory infrastructure environment for the next 20 years.