The concept of “lab of the future” can mean a variety of things depending on who you ask, but one consistency is clear: new “smart” technologies are at the forefront.
Applications of smart technologies can be found all around us—from vehicles that sense and alert drivers to other vehicles entering their blind spot, to thermostats that automatically adjust your home’s temperature throughout the day, to voice-activated devices that can inform you about the weather forecast or set reminders for you. However, innovative technologies like these, that make our daily tasks more convenient and safer, have been slow to enter the lab space. Researchers are expected to think creatively, solve complex problems, and unlock the latest breakthroughs, yet are limited by mostly manual, laborious processes and workflows. How can the innovations we utilize in our everyday life be adapted to simplify work in the lab? A new wave of emerging companies is developing solutions.
At the bench
Magdalena Paluch, co-founder and CEO of LabTwin, and her team visited more than 100 laboratories across the globe, interviewing lab managers and scientists to learn about their biggest pain points and limitations when working in the lab. They found that data entry errors and issues with reproducible research, siloed or fragmented information, and interruptions to experiments were some of the top issues for lab staff.
“We learned that scientists spend the majority of their time [50-70 percent] at the lab bench. At the bench, they have no good way to access information, so that was our initial inspiration for creating LabTwin—to enable real-time information documentation and access at the very point of experimentation,” explains Paluch, who has more than 13 years’ experience building new technologies.
LabTwin, which is described as the world’s first voice-powered digital lab assistant, is transforming the way scientists conduct experiments, input data, and complete reports. The tool is accessible via a mobile app as well as through a web-based platform for desktop computers and tablets. Imagine scientists at the bench with their phone in their pocket, a headset in one of their ears, and an app on their phone that enables verbal communication with the digital assistant. The assistant is triggered to begin real-time documentation and provide access to information through a “wake” word, which can be customized by each scientist to avoid any potential confusion caused by multiple scientists working at the same time with the same generic wake word. “With our open API, we offer integration with an external database and lab informatics software to make work much more insightful and datadriven when at the bench,” says Paluch.
In a white paper detailing the benefits of digitization and artificial intelligence in the lab, LabTwin cites that more than $28 billion is lost annually in the US on research that is not reproducible. While electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are a good start to digitizing data, challenges still remain for workers at the bench. To help prevent human error and combat the reproducibility crisis, LabTwin offers the ability to have interactive protocols. As Paluch explains, scientists often print protocols before entering the lab, and take those printouts with them to the bench. But with LabTwin, that is no longer necessary. The digital assistant will verbally provide each step of the protocol, and the scientist can annotate or change the protocol as they go through it, so the steps or change of value is automatically recorded in real time. This transforms the traditional process of having to fully complete the experiment first, and then manually document what was done throughout the day, which runs the risk of information being lost or inaccurate.
“Scientists can work on four to five experiments in one day, and they have to keep track of all changes they’ve made, and later document them. We enable scientists to capture it right at the time of change,” says Paluch. “We have also witnessed scientists having to leave the bench and the lab, which requires them to take off their gloves, wash their hands, etc., just to check information on a dilution for an experiment they ran a week earlier.” By simply asking LabTwin to check that information for them, scientists no longer have to pause from their work. The tool knows scientific terms and acronyms, such as ELISA, so scientists truly feel like they have a knowledgeable personal assistant at their disposal. The web application allows for further analysis, reporting, and connection to other systems when the scientist is no longer working at the bench.
To ensure security, the app complies with regulatory guidelines on data privacy and uses data encryption, user access tiering, and private networks to protect lab data. The app allows labs to create a complete audit trail of their work with automatic timestamps, electronic signatures, and (soon-to-be-launched) secure data storage.
When asked about what other needs have yet to be met in the lab, and what emerging trends may be here to stay, Paluch highlighted the continued use of machine learning and automation. “Many trends are driving this space,” says Paluch. “Everyone speaks about machine learning, and how we can automate some of the very mundane processes that take place in the lab. That’s our vision—to enable and empower scientists. They are at the center of what we do.”
Less admin work, more science
To keep research and everyday lab activities on track, time needs to be dedicated to administrative tasks like taking inventory of supplies, submitting purchase orders, and checking equipment maintenance needs.
LabFellows is a newly launched software tool that helps lab managers build operational intelligence. The platform allows the user to set up all the lab’s suppliers in one place, and provides solutions for four main areas of concern—procurement, inventory, lab compliance, and integrations. The software enables the user to manage vendors, approvals, and purchases all in one place. You can keep track of the lab’s samples, chemicals, and reagents without the use of spreadsheets or notebooks. The software automatically adds purchases to your inventory, so everyone on staff knows what is available and where in the lab it is. It also stores and organizes your safety programs and documents, and connects with your other existing management systems and accounting software.
Like LabTwin, LabFellows aims to save time, and allows researchers to focus on the actual science instead of admin tasks. For example, according to the company, on any given day lab managers can spend up to 90 minutes setting up new vendor and payment terms; 120 minutes taking inventory by spreadsheet on a shared drive; and 30 minutes scheduling instrument maintenance and upkeep.
“When we start to figure out how to do science as a business, we find it really hard to do our work because a lot of the materials [needed] for an experiment are regulated materials,” says Julio de Unamuno IV, co-founder and CEO of LabFellows, adding that establishing relationships with new vendors, verifying your lab is compliant, and receiving the materials needed for your lab requires a lot of paperwork and admin work to complete, which takes away from conducting research.
“Our ‘secret sauce’ is our B2B integrations, which allow you to directly connect with suppliers to do things like execute purchase orders,” says de Unamuno. While many other systems create a PDF of your purchase order, which you then have to manually fax or email to your vendor to ensure the order is submitted, with LabFellows, it is automatically sent to the supplier.
“The number one order entry method in our space is the fax machine,” says de Unamuno, highlighting the need for better solutions in the lab. “As technologists, we have traditionally failed the lab environment when it comes to these applications. Scientists don’t have a problem with new technology, we’re just not offering good enough products—that they would rather use a fax machine to place an order.”
de Unamuno envisions the “lab of the future” will involve fusion of a variety of different apps and technologies to streamline processes, offer intelligent data, and provide a centralized system. “You’re going to see more about how to better manage projects, and tools to get things done without getting your hands dirty. [For example] if your CO2 cylinder runs low, an alarm will go off to have the supplier automatically come in and replace it. You’re going to see an ecosystem of these different apps and tools come together and work together to be more unified. That trend is just starting.”
“When we think about the lab, we should think of how it ‘just works’ around the scientists,” says de Unamuno. LabFellows aims to help with this concept of seamless navigation around the lab. The system is able to learn from data the user enters and use that data to automate other lab operation processes. For example, it eliminates the need for double data entry of a lab’s inventory, and can automatically populate inventory after the user simply hits one button saying they received the shipment. “Scientists like that all [they] have to do is shop, and then everything else gets automated,” says de Unamuno.
What comes next?
As Paluch and de Unamuno both point out, there are still many opportunities to improve the modern lab. Over the years, lab staff have transitioned from recording data with pens and notebooks to utilizing cloud-based technologies and ELNs. But now, another wave of innovations is taking hold.
The ways in which research is conducted, and even the physical lab environment, may look quite different in the coming decade as emerging technologies simplify processes and more features become automated. Armed with a variety of smart technologies, lab managers will be better equipped to make informed decisions and lead their teams.
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