Interview with me about the Frost & Sullivan award

Embarrassingly, I have just realized I never did a blog post on our recent Frost & Sullivan award – the short version is yes, we’re dead chuffed.

I was interviewed by IQPC’s Pharma IQ Community about this – you can read the full interview on their site, but here’s the highlights…. the questions were pretty insightful and forced me to write down some stuff I don’t think I’ve written elsewhere (I’m not too good at writing stuff down unless I have to!).

The interview was conducted by Emma Cobbledick, Editor, The Pharma IQ Community Newsletter

E: Hi Simon, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today. It’d be great if you could let our readers know a little bit about Amphora’s history to start us off.

S: Amphora grew out of a consulting engagement with Eastman Kodak in 1996. Kodak identified some specific business issues which required a fully-electronic ELN to be used by their scientists, enterprise-wide (and at the time Kodak’s R&D was huge). The company I was working for at the time were engaged by Kodak and I was the project manager. Things grew from there – with Kodak’s encouragement we turned the project into a product which we sold to a few other larger companies, and then in 2003 we did a Management Buyout and released a new generation of products more suited to today’s users and technology platforms. Amphora is based in the US & UK, and we have customers all around the world.

E: You recently received the Frost & Sullivan Award for Market Penetration Leadership, presented each year to the company that has demonstrated excellence in capturing market share within their industry. What criteria were you assessed on?

S: You can read the award citation for the detail, but to summarise they were looking at how Amphora was executing in the market place: our products and their focus on customer needs, how we take products to market, and the outcome of that in terms of market share. It isn’t just about the current situation; they are also looking at how we’re positioned for the future.

E: And which of these in particular did the judges think Amphora really excelled at?

S: We seem to have hit on the right product set and sales approach which allow us to solve the Lab Notebook problem quickly and efficiently in a wide variety of organisations, for a price they can afford and delivered in a package they can deploy. Turns out that’s been one of the biggest problems for the ELN market as a whole and is one of the reasons why things are only now really beginning to take off. Interestingly, what we’ve found actually works is entirely different to what we all thought (myself included) back in the late 90’s.

E: What would you say was unique about Amphora products insofar as the customer is concerned?

S: From an end-user perspective, we try very hard to stay out of the user’s way. The science is the focus, and ideally the notebook should take a back seat allowing the scientist to work however they wish. We’ve got some users who don’t even realise they are using PatentSafe, which we’re very proud of.

From an IT and administration perspective, we tend to build very open, scalable systems and we’ve spent a lot of time engineering out some of the problems that cause issues in the field. We’ve got a lot of smaller customers and they don’t have the time or experience to tend complex IT systems, and once you’ve built something that can survive in that environment then that really helps the larger companies control their TCO too.

From a legal perspective we’ve spent an awful lot of time on our Patent Evidence Creation & Preservation system and we feel it is uniquely suited to the task. This is one area where a lot of diverse experience is hugely important, which we’re fortunate to have.

E: How do you view your position in the ELNs market and has the award changed that at all?

S: We’ve always been very focused on solving the “Replace the Bound Notebook” problem; sometimes that means our products will be used alone, sometimes in conjunction with other “ELN” systems from other suppliers. So I’d view our position as solving a particularly tricky part of the ELN problem space, and we are delighted to be able to work with other vendors where our customers need some discipline-specific functionality on the desktop.

I’m not sure the award has changed much in reality, although historically we haven’t spent a lot of time tooting our own horn – in a lot of early markets all you see is lots of loud marketing fluff, almost as a substitute for making sales. We’ve preferred to focus on figuring out how to solve the problem and making the sales, gaining experience all the time. What the award has done has drawn attention to that – I suspect people had trouble figuring out what we were about before, because we weren’t doing the normal marketing thing.

E: If you were to offer advice to a company considering getting involved in ELNs, what would be the first thing you’d tell them?

S: The first thing I’d do is stop using the phrase “ELN” to describe your project; the term is terribly ambiguous and means many different things to different people.

Before you get involved in products and vendors, take a clear look at what you are trying to do. Try to keep it as simple as possible; a major cause of ELN project failure is people get distracted by all the wonderful possibilities that you could do in eR&D nirvana and they end up with something that they can’t afford, or if they can afford it they can’t roll it out.

Most successful ELN projects are surprisingly simple and will build on that initial success over a number of years. “Conventional wisdom” about what “should” be in a “proper” ELN seems to be based on the wishes & dreams of a few pundits, rather than on business need. Unfortunately, project managers seldom get credit for solving the business problem in a quick & simple way!

John Trigg (of PhaseFour Informatics) and I have been doing a workshop on ELN Project Implementation for a number of years – I do it as a non-commercial hobby. There’s a number of concepts which have stood the test of time which really help people focus on what their problem is and how they can increase their capabilities with minimal risk and cost going forward.

E: Sounds like sensible advice, what’s the most interesting development that you know of, in terms of the ELN industry and ELN usage?

S: I think there is finally a consensus that you can’t get a single “ELN” system which will meet the needs of everyone in an organisation. Science is a huge field which is constantly changing and there’s no way a single product can intimately support each group of users. So we’re seeing many more “ELN Systems” being deployed (with great success) which comprise more than one product called an “ELN”, focused on different groups of users. Customers are seeing that this approach is cost effective and lower risk, and vendors are increasingly seeing this isn’t a zero sum game – indeed, they will suffer in the market if they don’t focus on their strength and work well with others.

E: And what do you think is the biggest obstacle on the road to a paperless lab today?

S: Complexity. This is a hard problem space and one that’s very prone to being over-engineered into an unjustifiable wish-list of functionality and organisational initiatives. Combine that with a healthy dose of marketing and an enthusiastic sales person, and you have a recipe for project failure. Discipline is the key to success in ELN projects.