Assessing the risks of switching to a new tech or tool
The risks of adopting a new tool or technology differ for academia and industry — as does the general attitude toward making a switch, says Kashef Qaadri, Software Technology Leader of Life Sciences at Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. This is because “fundamentally, their goals are different. Academia is typically focused on basic research and being first to publish, while industry is focused on safety and getting products to market”. Despite these differences, however, both organizations will benefit from assessing the following risks, which are grouped into the categories below.
There are three major risk areas when it comes to performance of a new technology, particularly for labs and research organizations where adherence to standards and regulations is required: validation, reliability, and consistency. If the new tech isn’t reliable or consistent, there is no incentive to use it. But, if it is both, it must also be validated against the actual use case in which it will be implemented. Plenty of tools have been tested on "gold standard" molecules or systems only to fail miserably when used for its intended purpose. There are three major risk areas when it comes to performance of a new technology, particularly for labs and research organizations where adherence to standards and regulations is required: validation, reliability, and consistency. If the new tech isn’t reliable or consistent, there is no incentive to use it. But, if it is both, it must also be validated against the actual use case in which it will be implemented. Plenty of tools have been tested on "gold standard" molecules or systems only to fail miserably when used for its intended purpose.
Throughput and scalability
Evaluating the throughput and scalability of the new tool is also important. If the new tech enables scale up of a previously untenable workflow, the time and money savings it’s likely to bring you will outweigh the initial investment of integrating it into your system and learning to use it. The following questions can give you a pretty good idea of a new tool's throughput and scalability: Is it plate compatible? How many runs can I do in a day? Can I perform runs in parallel?
Impact on workflow and systems
It doesn't matter how reliable, consistent, validated, or high-throughput a new tech or tool is if it isn’t compatible with the workflow and systems with which it will be used. Any assessment of a new technology should include a careful consideration of the impact on space, storage, analysis, hardware and software, compatibility with other instruments and lab infrastructure, and the impact on the larger IT landscape.
Software can be a great solution that solves a lot of these pain points, and there are several companies developing data management software specifically for life sciences and biotech R&D. The user interface and its ability to interact with your existing and new lab technology and instrumentation are critical. If the new tech you are considering is data management/LIMS-type software, it's important to confirm that the software is easy to use and works with your existing systems.
It goes without saying that any evaluation of a new tool or technology is incomplete without an evaluation of the associated costs, which include the cost of initial setup, the annual cost to run, and the lifetime cost of ownership. This goes beyond the cost of the tool itself (although this is a critically important factor — especially if your organization requires more than one). For example, does the new tool or tech require specific consumables or software, and if so, how long do they last and how much do they cost? Do you need to upgrade the computers the lab uses? What is the cost of training people to use it? Putting in the time to research these costs up front is critical; you don’t want any surprises later. Additionally, another important factor that can be easy to overlook is the cost and quality of mechanical/tech support. If something breaks and you need someone to come take a look, how quickly can that happen? Additionally, what is the cost of a support plan? A new tool or tech may not be worth the investment if it will take days to weeks to fix an issue or if the cost to get assistance to troubleshoot a problem is prohibitive.
IP and standards
Legal risks are another important set of considerations when deciding whether to purchase a new tool or tech. Intellectual property (IP) risks are of particular concern for academic research groups who want to publish or use their discoveries as the basis for a new company. Some manufacturers and tech transfer offices include clauses that either prevent publication or claim royalties on research leaving the University space and entering industry. It’s also essential to ensure a new tool or technology meets regulatory standards (especially in the food and pharma spaces).
It's critical that you know whether a tool you want to buy will meet regulatory standards before you invest in testing fit for your laboratory.
People and Culture
Perhaps the most influential variable for successful adoption of a new technology is who will be using it. Krijn de Nood, co-founder and CEO of Dutch startup Meatable feels that the biggest risk associated with any new tool or technology is the learning curve people must go through. "If they don't see the benefit, that ‘this is going to make my life easier,' then they won't go through the learning curve," he says.
His sentiments are shared by many others in biotech. Kevin Costa, Director of Brand & Communications at Shiru, who has interacted with hundreds of startups and large companies through his past work with SynBioBeta, reflects on his interview with Zymergen's Senior Director of Advanced Technology, Vytas SunSpiral. "One of the surprising things I heard is that, beyond the technology itself, culture is a big factor in adopting new technologies. [Vytas] talked a lot about the need to create a new story within technical groups about how things can get done and finding the people to champion those new tools/technologies within the team. If a superior new way of doing things lacks the right support, it's slow to get adopted, and may never benefit from people devoting themselves to making it work in the best, highest way possible."
Qaadri also emphasizes that the relationship with the supplier is also a very critical aspect. A willing vendor who will be with the researchers every step of the way, from design to final installation and training, can be the determining factor if a lab or R&D group is deciding between a couple of different options. A trustworthy vendor is important for minimizing much of the risk associated with getting people on board with a new tool or technology.
Risk mitigation best practices
Knowing the risks associated with adopting a new tool or technology is the first step. To ensure a smooth-as-possible, confident transition, knowing how to mitigate those risks is key. There are a few tried-and-true approaches that any research group can benefit from.
"I take the approach of concentric circles, looking at the direct and immediate impact and moving outwards to more ancillary impacts," says Qaadri. "The calculus is around time and money saved versus damage that could be done. I also take into account the amount of time and energy needed to reverse a change if something unforeseen happens."
Effective leadership can also make a transition much less painful. Don’t underestimate the power and influence of a strong project leader who can not only help people see the benefits of a new tool or technology but who also can develop a strong relationship with the vendor, ensuring a happy and successful working relationship throughout the lifetime of the tool.
Qaadri also recommends involving IT early in the process, much earlier than you think you need to. This will pay dividends in avoiding painful, time-consuming software, hardware, and system failures due to incompatibilities or underpowered capacity.
If you have the opportunity to utilize a vendor test lab, you should also consider capitalizing on that. Even better, if you can demo, test exactly how you’re going to use it —with your system, on your processes and models. This will help you avoid unpleasant surprises.
Stay realistic and keep at it
Change is hard — but it's essential for any research or R&D group that wants to keep innovating. By being aware of the risks and how to mitigate them up front, you can ensure that switching to a new tool or technology is as smooth as possible, and you can approach it with some confidence. Be flexible and keep at it. There will be some failures and some troubleshooting. But if you put the time and effort in, you’ll soon realize the benefits afforded by switching to a tool that will help you innovate faster and easier.
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