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The Battle For The Lab

Armed with electronic laboratory notebooks, software suppliers launch visions of comprehensive research informatics networks

by Rick Mullin
May 7, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 19

Credit: Chr. Hansen
The electronic laboratory notebook has risen to the level of a global information technology platform at food chemical maker Chr. Hansen.
Credit: Chr. Hansen
The electronic laboratory notebook has risen to the level of a global information technology platform at food chemical maker Chr. Hansen.

Accelrys, a supplier of research informatics software, issued a press release last month that did not report any news about the company. Nor did it introduce new software. Instead, the release issued a challenge to the life sciences research sector “to close the productivity gap from innovation through commercialization that is slowing product development and time-to-market and hampering competitiveness for science-driven organizations.”

Couched in Cold War rhetoric, Accelrys’ call to action targeted companies “developing products based on modeling at the atomic or molecular level.” Given the rapid accumulation of data generated by research, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, Accelrys suggested that science-based companies close the productivity gap via a redesign of laboratory information technology (IT).

Only later does the press release reveal that Accelrys now offers a solution called the Accelrys Enterprise Platform. Rather than a new product, the Enterprise Platform is a suite of software ranging from the company’s original experiment support products to its recently acquired line of electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs). Accelrys claims the platform is the first IT system “that enables the integration and deployment of broad scientific solutions spanning data management and informatics, enterprise lab management, modeling and simulation, and workflow automation.”

Laboratory instrumentation supplier PerkinElmer made a similar-sounding announcement in March when it introduced its Ensemble for Chemistry informatics platform at the American Chemical Society’s spring national meeting. The company, which recently purchased the ELN developers CambridgeSoft and ArtusLabs, stopped short of issuing a challenge to scientists, but it positioned Ensemble for Chemistry as a means of dealing with the same kind of productivity gap that Accelrys described.

A repositioning of existing software products is also under way at Thermo Fisher Scientific, another instrumentation firm that has spawned an informatics product line. IDBS, the last of the big ELN specialists not to have been acquired by a diversified laboratory systems firm, is doing the same.

All the companies aim to transform ELNs from mere replacements for paper lab notebooks into gateways to huge amounts of research and corporate data. By combining ELNs with laboratory information management system (LIMS) and other software, each of these companies hopes to lock up the lab informatics market in the same way that SAP, the German software company, has locked up the market for business enterprise resources planning (ERP) software. Executives who are in charge of managing research software at drug and chemical companies say they welcome the ambition, even if they aren’t ready to turn all of their business over to a single firm.

Michael H. Elliot, president of Atrium Research, a consulting firm specializing in science informatics, says the efforts to create comprehensive, harmonized software lines are a response to consolidation among both research-intensive companies and lab informatics suppliers. Efficiency and downsizing programs at major drug companies have prompted the centralization of IT operations across multiple laboratories with an emphasis on managing data effectively in a paperless environment, he says.

A longtime watcher of the research software industry, Elliot is skeptical of recent claims. “PerkinElmer’s Ensemble approach is a rebranding effort more than anything else,” he says. “I read Accelrys’ move as the same kind of concept, maybe slightly bigger. They are basically trying to brand their disparate software components, trying to bring them together into one strategy.”

Credit: Atrium Research
The market for electronic laboratory notebooks is increasing steadily.a Estimates. SOURCE: Atrium Research
Credit: Atrium Research
The market for electronic laboratory notebooks is increasing steadily.a Estimates. SOURCE: Atrium Research

The moves at Accelrys and PerkinElmer are also a matter of making sense of multiple acquisitions. “You have to start painting a picture,” Elliot says. “You can’t just look at this little piece that is the top of the mountain in some puzzle picture of the Rockies. You have to paint the picture of the Rockies. You have to put all the individual pieces you are acquiring into a broader context.”

Getting disparate software to sing on a single IT platform is still a challenge, however, given how differently various pieces of software are developed. “There is always this clamoring for new features, new capabilities, new attributes for a particular product,” Elliot says. “Vendors react to that by building in more and more features. This creates big, complex systems that are difficult to change and modify.”

Any vendor declaration that multiple pieces of software have been harmonized, Elliot says, is likely to meet with some skepticism among buyers. “Customers I talk to read this and say, ‘Yeah, I still don’t see what is in it for me,’ ” he says. “ ‘Give me something more concrete underneath that I can get excited about.’ ”

Todd Johnson, executive vice president for sales, marketing, and services at Accelrys, says the harmonization is real. He points to the acquisition of ELN makers Symyx Technologies in 2010 and Contur in 2011 as the catalyst for change in the company’s informatics offering. “We did a full functional integration with a single global engineering team and a product management team and a marketing team,” he says. “We didn’t leave any of these businesses separate.”

Breaking down the silos between teams at Accelrys mirrored what the company sought to accomplish with its system. The key goal was to integrate the new ELN products with Pipeline Pilot, the company’s basic scientific informatics platform.

Just as Pipeline Pilot links the company’s materials and molecular-modeling products to a broader research informatics system, the Symyx and Contur products will establish “bridges” to users’ other data sources, including manufacturing and financial systems, says Michael Doyle, principal application scientist at Accelrys. ELN software also provides a dashboard from which to access, enter, and manage data across a company.

“Accelrys has the ability in its platform to deploy into its notebook very complex and extended pieces of science rapidly, facilely, and in a very consistent way,” Doyle says. “We believe it is a competitive advantage and benefit to customers, both pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical.”

Matthew Hahn, chief technology officer at Accelrys, says the company issued the “productivity gap” challenge last month after initiating changes to its informatics offerings that enhance the role of the ELN. Pipeline Pilot, which had been the informatics backbone to its software, now functions as more of a coordinator of workflow in labs that are connected on a network. That network spans all of a user’s research operations and communicates with other corporate software. Also in the mix is software Accelrys added earlier this year with its acquisition of VelQuest, a laboratory batch record software firm. The ELN, Hahn says, is fundamental to capturing and working with data on the Enterprise Platform.

Research-based industries need to recognize the importance of consolidating laboratory informatics and linking lab IT to financial and business IT, Hahn says. Accelrys, he acknowledges, is viewed by many as an experimental support software company with nothing like the IT reach it has achieved with the addition of ELNs. “I think it’s time for the industry to look at Accelrys in a completely different light.”

Similarly, PerkinElmer’s burgeoning informatics business got a makeover with the firm’s acquisition of ELN software firms CambridgeSoft and ArtusLabs. The firm also purchased laboratory data integration software firm Labtronics last year, according to Michael R. Stapleton, general manager of informatics for PerkinElmer.

“The initial premise in these acquisitions, and in putting the system together with our existing LIMS, was really around the growth of services,” Stapleton says. PerkinElmer had launched a systems integration service called OneSource about five years ago with the aim of allowing customers to create vendor-neutral data networks. The company’s service engineers were amassing “a huge amount of knowledge about what goes on in R&D at our customers’ labs, specifically around scientific workflow particular to instrumentation,” Stapleton says. The company set about establishing products that can support enterprise-wide informatics, he says.

With CambridgeSoft, an R&D software specialist; ArtusLabs, a cross-functional ELN supplier; and Labtronics, a supplier of quality-assurance software, Stapleton says, PerkinElmer has extended its LIMS into a software offering for large users with global research operations.

Like Accelrys, PerkinElmer has a perception problem in the informatics market, Stapleton acknowledges. “Most people still think of us as a pure-play instrumentation company,” he says. “That hasn’t been true for a while.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific, another big name in instrumentation, has been building an informatics software business as well. Unlike Accelrys and PerkinElmer, however, Thermo has not acquired an ELN vendor.

Instead, says Dave Champagne, the firm’s general manager for informatics, Thermo invested in a software integration network, called Integration Manager, that moves data from disparate sources “like a high-speed phone switch.” Thermo works with partners, including Accelrys and IDBS, to configure informatics platforms for customers.

The company takes advantage of its base in lab instruments, Champagne says. “Not only can we grab data sources from software applications, we can grab them off instruments with the same platform,” he says. “You can get volumes of mass spec data, chromatography data, as well as information on your LIMS or ERP system.”

The company says its familiarity with laboratory research gives it an advantage in the consulting services market. “I look at what is out there and it seems pretty heavy,” Champagne says. “It’s not good for the workflows you have in the science community. It’s not tuned for use in the lab.”

Computer Sciences Corp., a big IT system generalist and outsourced-services firm, flips that argument, seeing too much emphasis placed on the laboratory as a closed or specialized environment. CSC’s goal is to help clients manage information to facilitate business decision making, according to Robert Welch, president of the firm’s chemicals, energy, and natural resources business group. “LIMS data is an extension of that,” he says. “We aren’t focused only on the laboratory problem set but on incorporating the laboratory process with the data needed to run the business better.”

Susan Najjar, Thermo’s marketing director for informatics, adds that CSC and Thermo are long-standing partners. The fact that they work together, she says, illustrates both the importance of laboratory-specific IT as well as a growing realization among users that research is both a business and a science function. She and others emphasize the importance of partnerships, noting that SAP holds sway in the ERP sector with many software partners.

Credit: Accelrys
A quality-control analyst holding a wireless tablet PC accesses analytical data via Accelrys’ VelQuest laboratory execution software.
Credit: Accelrys
A quality-control analyst holding a wireless tablet PC accesses analytical data via Accelrys’ VelQuest laboratory execution software.

For its part, IDBS has taken a go-it-alone strategy among ELN vendors. The “last man standing” among the major suppliers, IDBS acquired Infor­Sense, a data orchestration and analytics software firm, in 2009. Infor­Sense’s product has been integrated with IDBS’s E-WorkBook ELN, says Chris Molloy, the firm’s vice president of corporate development. In the process, the ELN became a broader informatics platform, he says.

“The lab notebook is how you enter the platform and consume the data,” he explains. “What’s new is the multidisciplinary nature of it, the fact that you can integrate data from instruments, third-party software, historical data hubs—indeed, from external sources such as Elsevier, Thomson Reuters, and others. Scientists now have an unprecedented view of data and ability to consume data from within their entire organization.”

Molloy credits E-WorkBook’s roots in biology research for the wide reach of IDBS’s informatics platform. The company’s original research software product, ActivityBase, applied business management principles to high-throughput screening in biological research, he says. “Biology is a very multidisciplinary area.”

The company went on to extend E-WorkBook to areas including regulatory compliance, preclinical data management, and manufacturing, he says. “The fact that we introduced a multidisciplinary product has played out to our advantage, because that is now what users are seeking to do—join organizations together through data.”

Angela Chabot, project manager for ELNs in analytical R&D at Pfizer Global Research & Development, would agree. “Data management is swiftly moving from simulating a paper notebook to driving deeper into data mining and integration with other systems,” Chabot says. “Pfizer is developing the concept of an intelligent data framework where all data systems throughout the organization utilize the same data standards and common metadata, thus setting the stage for systems integration.” Merging quality and financial systems with scientific data provides the further benefits of enhanced process control and faster business decision making, she adds.

“Enterprise-out-of-the-box infrastructure was not an option only a few years ago,” she says. “So for the most part, Pfizer has engineered its own infrastructure related to systems and their integration.” Because of the scale of research at Pfizer, the company has generally installed data systems and “circled back” to integrate them. Pfizer sees some benefit in the move toward platform integration among major vendors, Chabot says.


With the acquisitions of Contur and VelQuest, Chabot says, Accelrys has filled out an informatics platform that can meet the varied needs of a large organization. Pfizer, which uses Pipeline Pilot and has 600 users on Symyx systems, is upgrading to a new version of the ELN containing a function called “analyze tab” that incorporates Pipeline Pilot. Although Pfizer’s biological group currently uses ELNs made by LabWare, a competing software supplier, “the goal is to eventually have Accelrys company­wide,” Chabot says.

Brian Brooks was formerly the director of research data management at GlaxoSmithKline, where he was responsible for efforts to implement ELNs. Now installing an ELN network at Cambridge University’s chemistry department using IDBS software, Brooks also sees a strong trend toward system integration via ELN software.

“The ELN is at the center of a scientists’ work. It’s where they record their daily activities and is the starting point for the scientific workflows within a lab,” Brooks says. “These workflows lead on to downstream systems, passing on data and making use of services from other applications.” ELN software is a “natural integrator” for organizations seeking to improve efficiency in the implementation of research informatics, he adds.

Of course, integration becomes more difficult when companies—both software users and suppliers—make acquisitions. “Software companies merge, and so do big pharmaceutical companies,” he says. “Consequently, you have this integration spaghetti. So, integration takes a long time.” Established companies are not going to benefit as directly from single-vendor software suites as start-ups that have no legacy IT to contend with. Brooks notes that GSK, like any large pharmaceutical company, uses software from a long list of vendors.

“There are tools and approaches which make integration easier,” he says. “It’s still a lot of work. However, the potential efficiencies in time and effort can be significant.”

At GSK, Brooks says he saw the much-touted scientists’ resistance to centralized informatics evaporate once researchers started using ELNs. “A year after we had done the deployment, 80% of scientists said they would not want to go back to paper notebooks,” he reports.

The company initially had a policy of not deploying its ELN platform to partners or contract research organizations (CROs), he says. “They were concerned about an intellectual property siphon.” But researchers pushed to accelerate the deployment of ELNs to research partners. “That is the acid test” for IT adoption, Brooks says, “when users tell you, ‘We want this.’ ”

Eli Lilly & Co., an early adopter of the ELN starting 10 years ago, went through a similar change of heart on opening its ELN system to outside partners. “We have 1,900 users in discovery, development, formulation, biology, and contract R&D,” says Michael Kopach, research adviser in the firm’s chemical product R&D division. As Lilly adopted a more networked approach to research, its use of CROs rose, he says. “Over the years, a significant amount of work has gone to CROs, and I can report that the electronic notebook has been at the front end of change.”

Although large drug companies may have had to wrestle with integrating ELNs into existing laboratory management software, companies just starting to use the software have the option of using ELNs alone. Chr. Hansen, a Danish food ingredient company, opted to use Contur ELNs to corral data at its research facilities around the world, launching an initial rollout to 350 users in January 2011, shortly before Accelrys acquired the ELN maker. Morten Meldgaard, project leader, says the firm, to his knowledge, is not currently using Pipeline Pilot or any other Accelrys software.

“We are going to roll this out to 16 sites around the world,” Meldgaard says. “There are more than 800 databases involved—personal, departmental, corporate. We are going to migrate technical reports [in these databases] to the ELN system.” He says the firm selected Contur, mainly for its simplicity and ease of use, noting that the software company had developed a data migration technique that meets Hansen’s needs.

“Our global system is not a system but systems. We don’t have central access to scientific data,” Meldgaard says. “Shared drives can only be accessed from the sites where they are located.” Hansen’s project is intended to permit an overview of the global research enterprise from any location. To do this, the company believes the ELN will be sufficient, Meldgaard says.

Meldgaard, who managed several previous IT projects at the company, says the ELN project is happening now because of a convergence of the company’s need for central data management and the availability of commercial software that can do it.

Have scientists been resistant to adopting a new IT system? “Good question,” Meldgaard answers. He reports an initial hesitation to jump into a regimen where everything users record can be read openly by other researchers, but like Brooks, he has seen the advantages of using an ELN register quickly in the lab.

In general, IT managers and research executives say, scientists have acclimated to ELN systems in corporate research. According to Lilly’s Kopach, many newly hired researchers are so used to technology in college that they have no experience with paper notebooks and are immediately dependent on ELNs.

Kopach lists a number of clear advantages to the digital data management that has risen in the pharmaceutical industry. “You get a return on investment in a few years after the deployment,” he says. “You have a database with a million-plus experiments and unprecedented collaboration between discovery and development as well as enhanced CRO relationships.”

If there’s a downside it’s vendor consolidation, says Kopach, who questions whether one supplier will ever be a sole source of research IT at a large company. “Version upgrades are not always improvements,” he says. “Data migration hasn’t been smooth, and interoperability between ELNs is not where it should be today.”

The trick will be getting it there, Pfizer’s Chabot says, and the game is on. “Vendors have seen the need to produce software systems complete with plans for expandable infrastructure,” she says. “To what extent vendors can achieve this goal will determine who is successful in the scientific marketplace.”



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