Our PatentSafe Electronic Lab Notebook in a growing Biotech

4-Antibody have successfully rolled out our PatentSafe Electronic Lab Notebook, demonstrating the flexibility and power has in a growing Biotech.

I must admit some frustration with the process of Press Releasing new customers. Unlike most suppliers we tend to press release after a successful implementation (e.g. pilot, decision to go forward, roll out – and then we press release), and we also don’t press release everything. So it tends to be a while after we’ve got the project in and successful before we can talk about it, but it does mean when we do go public it is with something that’s solid.

We’ve just issued a press release on 4-Antibody’s use of PatentSafe (story on PRWeb here) and what’s interesting to me is that 4-Antibody, as a growing Biotech, needed to have a solution which allowed them as much flexibility and future-proofing as possible whilst giving them good IP protection.

Here’s the customer quote:

4-Antibody were looking to replace their paper based system but had some definite ideas about how any new electronic system would need to work for them. Marc van Dijk, Chief Technology Officer for 4-Antibody explained “It was very important for us that a new electronic lab notebook should not impose restrictions on us in the way that we work”. 4-Antibody evaluated several possible ELNs (Electronic Lab Notebooks) and chose to implement Amphora’s PatentSafe system, because according to van Dijk “Amphora seemed to offer the most flexible system which allowed us to do what we wanted to do in terms of workflow”.

But of course, you still need to stitch your systems together and keep things straight – always a challenge but particularly important in growing companies:

The system can also be simply integrated with other R&D applications, which was important to 4-Antibody because they plan in the future to implement these types of links. Van Dijk said that 4-Antibody aim to use PatentSafe as “one searchable database connecting all our R&D records, linking to our LIMS system” and he continued, “this will allow scientists and management to quickly see everything that is going on across R&D”.

This was one of the projects I was personally involved in, and it was a real pleasure to work with them – great bunch of people. They have a mix of Apple MacOS X machines as well as Windows PCs which meant the cross platform nature of PatentSafe really helped too.

This project was also my introduction to the Basel Fasnacht. We did think it was a little strange when we found the hotels were booked up, and you can imagine how we felt when we kept tripping over brass bands and people in scary costumes! Next time I’ll take the decent camera.

Some brief thoughts on the iPad and ELN

So I’ve said a lot in other forums about the iPad and ELNs and thought I should briefly jot something down here. So here’s the high level of why I think the iPad is interesting for Lab Informatics generally and Electronic Lab Notebooks in particular.

Aside from all the really interesting philosophy stuff which might give insight into the design decisions Apple have made, my interest in the iPad and ELN is as follows:

  • Finally we have a practical device which allows access to “The Cloud” in a magazine form factor.
  • They’ve sold 1m in the first 28 days, with supply restricted to the US. There are no credible alternatives announced. This is Apple’s segment to lose at the moment. If you want The Web in your hand, Apple is the place.
  • Because it is in consumer space, pricing and volume are almost commodity-like.

It might not currently be positioned as an enterprise device, but the above make it viable to evaluate. Turning to the ELN:

  • It has a proper web browser on it – no compromises (except for the lack of Flash – but HTML5 is here). The keyboard is ok ish and you can always use an external one – but it isn’t intended for content creation, really – this is a consumption and annotation device.
  • It is relatively cheap so accidents won’t break your heart. But it is sturdy enough for kids… it isn’t an executive toy.
  • Apple’s control-freak side mean this can be one of the most secure devices around.
  • You can use it in a plastic bag, with gloves etc.
  • Which makes me wonder – is this a hint of what we need to take the ELN to the science?

It isn’t perfect, but for my money it has earned a decent evaluation. It doesn’t replace the laptop, the desktop, etc. – but it does fill a gap which opens new possibilities. This is version 1 and I wouldn’t go out and buy them for everyone in my lab just yet, but I’d buy a couple and use those to understand the impact.

My conclusions so far are:

  • If you get one and take it home, be prepared to get one for your significant other. It is the only way to maintain harmony. Having said that, I rarely get to use mine when my children are awake, and I don’t know how to solve that yet (I am not getting them their own!).
  • This is a content consumption device, with the ability to annotate and make small contributions. It won’t replace your computer as the place you write.
  • Applications – web or otherwise – need to be re-visited in the light of the iPads characteristics. Straight ports won’t work.
  • The ecosystem is still settling down, you can tell that people have written apps not having seen the UI metaphors everyone else use. I suspect it will take at least 6 months for things to settle out.
  • This really is very interesting. I suspect it could be as profound as the the introduction of the Mac.

This post is interesting as an insight into what Apple are probably doing with the iPad. This is more about changing our entire relationship with computers than merely the choices they’ve made for this one device.

If you haven’t seen it, I covered some more about this on the morning before the possible iPad release in my Chairman’s remarks at the SMI ELN Conference (this was just before the iPad announcement – apologies to my dinner companions who had to suffer my addiction to Twitter that evening!).

Royal Society of Chemistry Lab Integration, 20th May in London

I’ll be contributing to the Royal Society of Chemistry workshop on “The Challenges Facing Laboratory Systems’ Integration” on the 20th May 2010 in London. More information here.

We’ll also have a couple of iPads with us if people are interested – we think this class of device has great potential in Labs.

Marc Benioff on the iPad and Cloud 2.0 – I wonder about ELNs

Interesting perspective on TechCrunch by Marc Benioff (of Salesforce fame) on the iPad and the Cloud:

The future of our industry now looks totally different than the past. It looks like a sheet of paper, and it’s called the iPad. It’s not about typing or clicking; it’s about touching. It’s not about text, or even animation, it’s about video. It’s not about a local disk, or even a desktop, it’s about the cloud. It’s not about pulling information; it’s about push. It’s not about repurposing old software, it’s about writing everything from scratch (because you want to take advantage of the awesome potential of the new computers and the new cloud—and because you have to reach this pinnacle). Finally, the industry is fun again.

It’ll be interesting to see what the iPad and devices inspired by it do for the world of ELNs. Clearly Marc’s got a very cloud-centric perspective but the success of Salesforce.com (which he launched when Enterprise software was very much a 3-teir world client/server affair) does mean he’s worth listening to.

Buying an ELN: The perils of application-centric thinking

Over at The Integrated Lab, John Trigg looks at the ELN Vs LIMS issue which has come around again as more traditional “LIMS” vendors introduce “ELN” products targeted at their traditional QA/QC customer base. He says:

But perhaps the real issue here is our application-centric view of laboratory systems

Which I very much agree with. So many projects start out not looking at their problem but instead “What ELN should we buy?”. When the terms we use such as “Electronic Laboratory Notebook” and even “Laboratory Information System” cover such a wide spectrum of potential functionality, starting out that way without being clear about what you are trying to achieve is a recipe for failure.

When we meet people for the first time we always ask “Why did you make time to see us?”, and hopefully they tell us the business problem they are trying to solve. If they answer “Because we’re looking for an Electronic Laboratory Notebook and you are an ELN vendor, show us what you do”, we find ourselves asking questions like “Why do you want one?” and “What do you think one will do for you?” which helps us to get to the root of the issue.

You’d be surprised how many people who tell us they want an ELN (and are quite certain about that!) but in fact have a problem that doesn’t need one – they might just need to use their existing software in a different way, or buy something like an SDMS or a LIMS.

I know that the traditional sales school says you should immediately “re-engineer” the prospect’s “vision” to suit the features of your product, but in my experience that rarely leads to a happy outcome even if you do manage to make the initial sale. If the end users didn’t need one, then just because the organization went out and bought one, and the vendor’s salesperson convinced them to buy his (plus the consulting time to aid with the inevitable painful implementation) it doesn’t mean the project is going to be a success in terms of achieving a Return On Investment.

From my perspective (as a technology implementor, not a salesperson), the sales process is where a potential customer and a potential vendor communicate and establish if what the vendor has to sell is going to solve the business problem the potential customer is prepared to spend money to solve. That often involves clarifying what the real problem is, before we get into solutions.

From the vendor side that means being willing to say “That’s not us, why don’t you go talk to these guys”, and from the customer side that means talking to us about the business problem you need solve, not what application you think you want to buy.

Once we understand a business problem, then if appropriate we can show how our ELN might be able to solve it. But not before. This sometimes upsets people who want us to just come in and demo, but surely the idea of the sales meeting is to have a productive outcome, and requires communication? Which is why we like to ask as many questions of prospective customers as they might ask of us, as strange as people find that.

I’d rather have a meeting where after 10 minutes we mutually come to the conclusion that there isn’t a fit, than labor with on each side pretending there at some point might be a happy outcome. If we communicate well at the first meeting, it means if things do go forward there’s a high probability of success all round.

(This approach of finding out people’s business problem and telling them if we aren’t a good fit did cause problems with our sales team until we changed their focus and compensation to be biased towards “happy customers” rather than just “make sales”. A small but important tweak which really helped the quality of the business, but still raises eyebrows when we recruit new salespeople.)