ELNs and the post-PC era

Almost all “Electronic Laboratory Notebook” vendors assume you are deploying onto reasonably-recent Windows PCs, which might be the case if you are focusing on Big Pharma (which most vendors were) but isn’t true when you start working with Academic Labs and Biotechs.

As a general rule Apple MacOS X, Linux are second class citizens in the ELN world and it is all the salesperson can do to stifle a laugh when you mention those “other platforms”. The iPad and Android equivalents don’t even get a look in!

I’ve felt this situation is increasingly unsustainable – not only is Apple’s Macintosh experiencing a resurgence, but we’re quite possibly on the cusp of a tablet-drive revolution.

An interesting blog post from the CTO at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions wonders if their current Windows desktop refresh might not be their last.

Personally, I think it likely this is the last version of Windows anyone ever widely deploys, though.

The reason? I think they’ll be fewer workloads that actually require a heavy deskop stack. Today, of course, we have all this legacy that’s coupled to the desktop, but in a decade, I really doubt that will be the case. Most stuff will arrive via the browser.

Talking with our larger Enterprise customers, it appears their Windows Desktop infrastructure is increasingly cumbersome and it is very hard to innovate in such a complex environment. In the smaller Biotechs there’s a real push to avoid cumbersome IT generally and there’s ready adoption of web and Cloud technologies, as well as additional platforms such as Macs and iPads.

The article makes a good long term point which ELN project teams should urgently consider:

From a strategic point of view, if you’re designing the future technology estate of a large organisation, that last thing it makes sense to do in this kind of context is build stuff that depends on a desktop stack. Furthermore, decoupling legacy from the desktop stack also has to be on the agenda, because you just can’t count on that stack being relevent in 10 years time.

Most ELN products on the market are tightly linked into the Windows ecosystem, even to the extent that one vendor just trumpeted the re-launch of their ELN which is now completely based on SharePoint!

My feeling is that organisations looking for an ELN which is going to last for more than 2 years should consider a situation where there are more than just Windows Desktop PCs in their IT infrastructure – not an unreasonable consideration, but one that needs thinking about up front rather than purchasing a product that locks you in to a dying ecosystem. The Windows PC isn’t going to be replaced but it won’t be the only way you’ll want to access your ELN, and whatever you select needs to be able to work with whatever you might adopt. That such lightweight “thin” solutions are easier to deploy than a thick client just icing on the cake.

(update: this story has been picked up in The Register)

ELN design – Simplicity is hard

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”—Leonardo Da Vinci

A good Electronic Lab Notebook takes careful design; the foundation of this is what does, and more importantly what it doesn’t do. This is really hard, as evidenced by the complexity that can creep in to products as you add feature after feature. Apple’s success is built upon design and the fact that better-resourced competitors can’t keep up shows just how difficult it is to get design into your corporate DNA.

I’ve always felt that ELNs are particularly susceptible to “Kitchen-sink” tendencies; the term is so badly defined, and the potential use cases so broad that you can easily find yourself needing to add more and more functions until you end up with an unholy mess which then:

  • Requires a lot of consulting to customise the application to fit the needs of any group of scientists
  • Is complex to master, requiring quite extensive training time

In PatentSafe we’ve taken a different approach – less is more. Our aim is to allow our users to use any application as part of the ELN experience, and we’ve come up with a handful of basic concepts which can be mastered in lass than 15 minutes and allow the user to use all their existing applications and work processes unchanged.

I’d to claim this is as a result of an amazing design philosophy but in truth it is a product of where we started. Most ELN companies started either in big Pharma (or were swiftly pointed in that direction by their VCs). Amphora in contrast started out working with Kodak and then into companies such as DuPont, PPG and J&J – doing really very large deployments (100’s to 1,000’s of users). When you’re rolling out that many seats especially into the very diverse research environments of chemical companies, you have to keep things ruthlessly streamlined and build on what’s there, because it is just physically impossible to customise the ELN for each group.

When we started to work with Biotechs this experience really paid off:

  • Biotechs don’t have the resources to pay for a long consulting engagement and lots of software
  • Biotechs will often change their entire business over a period of years; if their ELN was overly customised it would be hard to prevent it becoming a business-threatening impediment to change

It is interesting that Biotechs really have a lot more in common with diverse Chemical companies when looked at this way; most people seem to think Biotech is just little Pharma, but nothing could be further from the case when you are deploying IT.

Less-is-more is also helping us as we move into additional devices such as the iPad. PatentSafe is device-, application-, and discipline-agnostic, so the iPad just fits right in.

When we first started out I was always worried that we would need to add a lot more functionality to the core product to meet market demand. It turns out that resisting this was one of the best decisions we made as a company – we now have a product that can be dropped in almost anywhere and used immediately, which is dramatically different from the alternatives (so much so that people often think we’re lying when we say no consulting and 15 minute training time!).

I can’t help but feel that our market-leading presence is down to what we decide not to do, instead choosing to work with what’s out there. I’d like to think that what we’ve done is technically excellent, and PatentSafe has a number of very powerful features. But it is the features we chose not to implement which make PatentSafe so quick and easy to use, and able to stand the test of time as our customers’ business change.

(this post was inspired by “Simplicity isn’t that Simple” on 52 Weeks of UX blog.

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.

Press Release – Solidus & PatentSafe

Yipppeee we can announce a new customer.

We only press release once the customer has been through pilot, deployed, and determined they are indeed happy users of PatentSafe. So we tend to press release rather later than some, but it’s all solid stuff.

In addition, we don’t press release everyone but where it’s interesting we will ask the customer if they are prepared to do so. The interesting thing about Solidus is they are a small (ish) company with big-company problems – specifically they need an ELN which ties together their multiple sites – which makes the PatentSafe Starter Pack ideal for them.

The pretty version is on PRWeb here.

Solidus Bioscience Protect their Research and Improve Efficiency With Amphora’s PatentSafe Solution

Biotechnology and contract research company Solidus Bioscience Inc have successfully implemented Amphora’s PatentSafe solution to replace their bound lab notebooks. Solidus are using PatentSafe as a fully electronic lab notebook, with digital signatures. Not only does this fit more efficiently into today’s laboratories but it also allows them to partition and search their data simply and effectively, saving significant time previously spent on laborious manual searches and compilation of reports.

Cheyenne, WY (PRWEB) April 16, 2009 – Amphora Research Systems is pleased to announce that Solidus Bioscience Inc. has implemented PatentSafe for their e-notebook initiative. Solidus, with Research Labs in both New York and California, currently offers an in vitro toxicity screening service that determines compound and metabolite toxicity using a novel platform that supports arrays of miniaturized 3D cell cultures and metabolizing enzymes. Solidus has opted for Amphora’s PatentSafe Starter Pack option, which is targeted specifically at startup companies and small biotechs, to document contract studies and new product development.

With their research team split between the East and West coast, Solidus were keen to implement a solution which would help their scientists to co-ordinate and collaborate effectively. Having access to all the research information and project reports via the secure PatentSafe server is something that has allowed Solidus to work more effectively as a team.

Being able to put our experiments straight into PatentSafe has made life much easier for the scientists, giving us back the time we used to spend on cutting and sticking into our paper notebooks. Protecting our intellectual property is very important to us, and we feel that PatentSafe helps us document our work more efficiently and completely.

Solidus carries out a mix of contract research and testing for client companies and internal discovery work of their own. Using PatentSafe’s simply configured metadata it is now easy for the researchers to quickly access work done for a particular company or for a development project by everyone in the company simultaneously.

Jessica Ryan, a leading research scientist at Solidus said “Being able to put our experiments straight into PatentSafe has made life much easier for the scientists, giving us back the time we used to spend on cutting and sticking into our paper notebooks. Protecting our intellectual property is very important to us, and we feel that PatentSafe helps us document our work more efficiently and completely.”

She continued, “The PatentSafe Starter Pack was ideal for us. The small financial outlay meant that we were able to move quickly from deciding the PatentSafe software was a good fit for our business needs, to implementing it and seeing the benefits we were after.”

Having the option run the software remotely on a secure hosted server meant that Solidus did not need to worry about setting up and maintaining additional IT infrastructure. Deployment and training was simple and painless.

Allison Coles, CSO and co-founder of Amphora said, “Contract Research Organizations (CROs) have a particular set of problems. Not only do they want to be able to search, share and secure their work, but they need to be able to divide it simply, so each client can have a copy of their own work. Previously CROs would need to run a set of notebooks for each client company. Using PatentSafe it’s simple for them to pull together the all the relevant work for each company, at the end of the contract, or whenever you need to. This removes a lot of time consuming admin from the researchers and lets them work in a more efficient way.”

The Starter Pack Subscription of PatentSafe is specifically aimed at biotechs with up to 10 scientists. The Starter pack offering brings the Enterprise-class capabilities of PatentSafe to companies who find themselves with Enterprise-scale problems but until now haven’t had the infrastructure or financial ability to do anything but struggle on with the Paper Lab Notebook. Now they can have a quick, easy, and cost effective solution that can grow with them and their success.