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How Might Data-centric Software Solutions Impact Analytical Chemistry Labs?

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At the heart of most analytical chemistry analyses are data, the essential unit of measuring and monitoring not only your test subject but the analytical equipment itself. But how best to store it, interrogate it, share it and unlock the most added value? With the “labs of the future” vision, we are likely so see the reliance and utilization on data-based solutions only grow, so it is important that there are solutions available and the support to implement them to underpin the march of change.

We spoke to Shawn Anderson, Senior Director of Marketing, Software and Informatics Division at Agilent about the move to data centric software solutions and what the future may hold.

Q: Data are currently siloed, but we are moving towards a digital ecosystem for which data is at the center. What is the current situation in terms of putting data at the center, what is the end goal and how long might that journey take?

I would say many of our customers have some type of siloed solution in place now and they’ve invested into that, so they may not move quickly. They may do some type of adjacent development which Agilent can help them with. Those siloes tend to look like a Chromatography Data System (CDS), a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), and then sometimes a lab execution system which can often be an Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN) or similar. Agilent’s vision is to offer labs that are starting out, a data system that combines a lot of these functions together - for example a LIMS and an ELN that interfaces directly with the CDS. Agilent acquired a company in May 2018 called Genohm which offers a solution to digitize your lab workflow, combining LIMS with an ELN - called SLIMS, for simple LIMS. Our plan is to integrate that directly with our CDS over the next 12 to 18 months.

Q: With the cloud, how do you ensure that you meet the needs of the different labs that you serve?

Agilent did an extensive market survey and we believe segmented the market accurately to offer a variety of different types of cloud solutions. Here are some examples. First, there is the larger customer moving their whole CDS to the cloud - we have done that. The second is using the cloud just as storage.

Ultimately, a future scenario for those smaller and medium-sized labs would be a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution. For example, an Agilent GC could be plugged into the network, perhaps by scanning a barcode which would auto connect to the data system and the storage in the cloud. Agilent could assist with that. We think that is especially appealing to the smaller and medium-sized labs because it greatly reduces their IT spend and gets them up and running quickly.

Q: For a lot of people a lab will do something a particular way because they have always done it that way. How do you address the challenge of getting people to embrace change and adopt new systems?

It has become a lot easier because of the consumer market. A young lab technician perhaps straight out of college starting out in an analytical lab, may have never installed software on a workstation. It is interesting, we are not driving this, our customers are.

Q: Are you surprised by the speed of the change?

Yes! What has become apparent is that our customers’ perspective has shifted from “cloud or no cloud?”, to “absolutely cloud and absolutely using these enterprise architectures that Amazon and Google etc. have provided”. We are also seeing some of our customers willing to share their data with us. This enables us to say to them “our algorithm looked at your last 20 runs and we noticed there is some decrease in performance”, or “it looks like you are doing a glycan separation, did you know that if you use these techniques you would get a better result?” We can help them analytically and that builds trust, so long as the proper security safeguards are in place.

Q: Are you currently able to use information on usage to look for trends, if there are common breakdowns or glitches that are occurring for example, so that you can focus future developments and refinements?

Yes. We offer this now. There is an opt-in capability that allows customers to provide us access to their aggregated service data and performance data, enabling us to go back to them and say for example, “you have three main applications, and your biggest application is only using 40% of your resources and is starved of capacity, but your other two applications are not, so have you considered switching some of those resources to your biggest application?” This service is readily available, we have seen adoption where a lab has 300 GC’s, 300 LC’s, for them that solution is very beneficial. In the future, it could potentially all be automated.

Q: Many people out there do software. What do you think really sets you aside or is there anything that you would say is unique or better?

Agilent takes customer success extremely seriously. We want to make sure the customer gets it right. That is a philosophy across the company, truly in the culture, and I think comes from the Hewlett Packard days. So that is one thing that sets us aside from our competitors.

We also tend to be open with our software development and that is important. In fact, our product is called ‘OpenLab’. For instance, we have the Allotrope initiative, which is a vendor-neutral non-proprietary archive format. Agilent is one of the key leaders in that movement.

In the same vein, we also champion something called ICF - instrument control framework - our software can control other vendor instruments and vice versa. We want our customers to have that choice.

Shawn Anderson was speaking to Dr Ashley Board and Dr Karen Steward from Technology Networks.