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Adding New Capabilities—When Is It the Right Time?

Technical applicability, staff expertise, and infrastructure support should be considered

Paula McDaniel, PhD

Paula McDaniel, PhD, spent 23 years in corporate analytical and product development groups at Air Products after receiving her PhD in Physical Chemistry (University of Illinois, 1988). In 2011, she...

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As scientists, we are all attracted to the newest and greatest capabilities we encounter through conferences, literature, or vendors. Is that capability right for your company, your customers, and your team’s expertise? Before signing on the dotted line, consider these factors: applicability breadth, facility compatibility, and staff expertise. With a little planning, you can be equipped to make the best short- and long-term decisions for your organization. 

Building the case for bringing something new on-board should first include a clear-headed evaluation of the capability itself.  Understand the maturity of the capability. Is it a well-established capability with robust vendor or third-party support in terms of service and application support? Following are some ideas on how to ensure you build an air-tight justification to support spending your precious capital dollars.

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Performing the technical evaluation

If the capability is new to the world of science or its applicability to your chemical systems is unclear, do an extensive capability demonstration with the vendor. Choose real-world chemical/sample systems to evaluate the applicability breadth of the capability. Technologies are often evaluated with the ideal material/system for literature/publication purposes. Then, when applied to less ideal sample types, the method might fall short of your expectations. Additionally, talk to actual users of the capability for input. Ask for names/contacts of current users or hire a consultant to collect feedback on challenges and benefits in their lab environment. 

Consider reducing the risk of a direct purchase by using a phased-in approach. Partner with a contract research organization (CRO) for an interim period as you build your internal acceptance of the offering. Work with your customers (researchers, manufacturing, external customers) to choose relevant sample systems for a thorough evaluation. This will also allow you to obtain a cost/benefit equation for the technology.

Using a third-party partner shifts the risk to the service provider, allowing you to start and stop when program needs change. A CRO can also develop and transfer methods if your staff skill or personnel capacity are limited. Ensure CRO quality system is consistent with your particular environment and the end use for the capability data. Do you need a fully validated method (cGMP, ISO 17025, etc.), or is data collected for R&D/discovery purposes? 

Staffing assessments

Use trusted partners to assess technology applicability, cost to operate, and staff technical skills to make the most of your investment. This data will pressure test the cost/value equation for bringing a capability in-house. Will the new capability be easily incorporated into your operations, or present a long, hard learning curve?

In addition to the initial capital outlay impact on your yearly budget, understand the true cost to the end user for accessing the capability.

People are a critical component of your evaluation. If team members already have practical capability expertise, then you are good to go. If not, assess the depth of knowledge needed such as academic understanding, hands-on experience, sample preparation know-how, and method development expertise. If skill building is needed, evaluate support through vendor training, consultant resources, and courses. Additionally, application scientists at associated vendors can provide tremendous support to even the most skilled experts. 

Team additions might be required if a key skill gap or staff capacity issue is uncovered. Given today’s unemployment levels and competing regional employers, finding skilled scientists can present a significant hurdle. Adding staff with the right skills at the right time can be a challenge, which increases the value of a CRO option for an interim period. 

Infrastructure assessments

In addition to technical and staff assessments, infrastructure issues can uncover additional red flags. Evaluate footprint, bench space, auxiliary equipment needs (sample prep equipment, pumps, waste/solvent handling systems), ventilation (snorkels, hoods, cleanroom) and electrical requirements. Don’t overlook building compatibility (weight restrictions, doorway/walkway width, controlled temperature/humidity, special ventilation remediation, electrical/magnetic environment) needed for its installation. Will it require a new building, ground floor location, electrical remediation, lab renovations, ventilation changes, or air/water permitting modifications? Get creative as you sort options. For example, evaluate installation at an alternative lab location. Co-location with your customers can improve acceptance and, in some cases, present new options for staffing of the capability itself.  

Additional considerations

Technical, facility, and staffing assessments all give you the green light? Just a few things more things to consider:

    Lead time for instrumental delivery—determine the critical timeline for capability availability with your customer base. Some instrumentation has a 12-month delivery time. Add that to your internal approval process and a purchase order generation time and you can be many months before the instrument arrives, is installed, and is qualified for readiness! Is this compatible with your customers’ needs, or will the window of opportunity already have passed? If the purchase has long-term utility, it will be worth the wait. In the interim, prepare your lab and your safety/regulatory documentation before arrival.

    Determine turnaround time needed for output once capability is in place. For example, if supporting a manufacturing or synthetic process, short turnaround will factor into location and staffing. Instrument automation or supporting steps such as sample prep or data processing might be indicated.

    Assess sample stability, storage, and waste generation aspects—additional cold or ventilated storage might be required for samples pending/post analysis. Assess solvent handling, waste stream collection, and disposal to ensure true operational costs are understood. Consider establishing a system to schedule access to the new capability to ensure sample integrity is maintained on even the most delicate materials.

Use trusted partners to assess technology applicability, cost to operate, and staff technical skills to make the most of your investment.

    Availability of rent-to-own options can be beneficial if your corporate environment has limited capital or an inflexible process. For example, if your yearly capital plan affords little flexibility to kick off new acquisitions mid-term, this alternative might help bring in a critical capability mid-stream.

From here, an investment decision is the same as others with the addition of capital depreciation constraints on your budget. Factor in your company’s depreciation schedule (number of years to pay off a capital investment). Ensure the capability lifespan exceeds its depreciation timeline, avoiding obsolete capabilities from consuming your yearly capital budget. As you think about paying for the capability, include facility modifications, personnel costs, and ongoing maintenance costs. Some will be one-time investments, while others will contribute to your monthly expenses.

In addition to the initial capital outlay impact on your yearly budget, understand the true cost to the end user for accessing the capability. Is it too difficult, finicky, or personnel-intensive to make its cost acceptable to the end user? Is it a fit for a multi-month, graduate-student-supported project, but when a corporate cost structure is applied, the cost/value equation becomes untenable? This is where a thorough technical evaluation with the right partner pays off. Evaluating both applicability of technical information generated as well as the true personnel and operating cost to generate the desired output is key. By evaluating your lab as a business, smart financial investment decisions will in turn make your lab a success.

At the end of the day, even if the capability is not broadly applicable or expensive to staff, a business decision might still be “yes” to making the investment. If business critical information on proprietary systems is needed and external access options aren’t available or appropriate, your investment light might still be green. Maintaining your customers/users and their managers as partners in this process can help you make the right overall decision for your business or company.