Digitization Making the laboratory fit for the future
There are many visions of the laboratory of the future. What they all have in common is that software and processes play a major role. With Labfolder, Labforward develops and distributes an electronic lab book, and with the networking solution Laboperator it creates the prerequisite for modern laboratory processes.
When Dr. Simon Bungers recalls his doctoral days at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, he is sure that his future career path was already mapped out: "When my fellow students bent over microscopes to count cells with paper and pencil, it was clear to me that it had to be easier. With the help of scripts he wrote himself, he succeeded in automating such tasks. Together with fellow student Dr. Florian Hauer and software developer Mathias Schäffner, Bungers then went one step further. They founded the companyLabfolder in 2013.
"Our vision was to provide scientists with a digital lab book that would enable them to conduct and organize their research work faster and better. They should no longer have to rely on often unreadable information in tattered lab notebooks," says Bungers, describing the launch of their own company. In the years since, they have developed Labfolder, a digital laboratory notebook (ELN) that is now used by more than 50,000 scientists in over 21 countries. The use of such an ELN is a decisive step toward digitization for laboratories. In Bunger's view, it has always been important to improve data management in the laboratory, as this is the only way to achieve efficient and future-oriented research. However, the current situation in laboratories is often different.
Data handling: an inventory
What does a typical laboratory currently look like? Is everything digitized and geared towards efficiency, or is there still a need for optimization in various places? "Data are generated in the laboratory. So they are, so to speak, the products of the laboratory. For this reason, the logistics of the laboratory should be aligned with optimal data collection, management and processing. However, this is currently not a reality in many laboratories," Bungers is convinced. The classic laboratory sees itself as a collection of workstations and instruments to which incoming samples are distributed in order to perform the intended analyses or individual experiments. The documentation of the results is subsequently compiled in various forms, e.g. as analysis reports, from the various data and records more or less by hand.
In the laboratory of the future, therefore, the focus should be primarily on integrated processes, in which a close interlinking of individual work steps and the associated equipment should promise to make things really easier for laboratory staff. Bungers' demand: "Not only must documentation in the lab be digitized, for future-oriented research, processes must also be automated." Many trends in this regard have already been observed in laboratories for some time: The automatic acquisition of samples and automatic execution and documentation, including the autonomous generation of reports, can already be found in some highly automated laboratories. Structured data collection in a human- and machine-readable format also enables better data exchange in the medium term.
This is important in many constellations: Large pharmaceutical companies are driven to standardize their processes, e.g. in quality control, and to make generated data comparable and structured in such a way that they can be processed efficiently by intelligent algorithms. This also plays a role in the cooperation between industry and university research as well as between pharmaceutical companies and biotech startups: Collaborations are more efficient when both partners speak an understandable data language. In the near future, a further surge in innovations in digitization, automation and virtualization of the laboratory environment can be expected.
Users must recognize the benefits, only then will digital transformation succeed.
As in other areas, an important driver for the acceleration of innovations is the establishment of uniform standards. There are promising initiatives both on the side of standardization of measurement data and in instrument control, and their application is growing steadily. Here are just two of the many currently in use: the SiLA standard (Standardization in Lab Automation) of the Swiss Association Consortium Standardization in Lab Automation and the LADS standard (Laboratory and Analytical Device Standard), which a consortium of companies led by the Spectaris Association has developed on the basis of the industry standard OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture). Whether one of the two or a completely different standard will ultimately be the leader in the lab is not really decisive for Bungers: "I'd rather have two standards than none, and we try to be as open as possible in all directions with our products." But in order for Labforward to be able to work closely on the development of such standards, it decided to merge with another young start-up in 2019.
Merger of Labfolder with Cubuslab
An important milestone in the still young history of the company was the merger with the company Cubuslab in 2019. The start-up, which was spun off from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in March 2015, has developed a technology that makes it possible to network laboratory devices from precision balances to analytical measuring instruments. Cubuslab's products, together with Labfolder's strengths, paved the way for an important strategic advancement for the resulting company, Labforward. "A process in the lab has three basic steps: planning, execution and documentation," Bungers explains. "With Labfolder, we're anchored in documentation, where all the data converges; with the Cubuslab platform and data from lab instruments, we simplify and potentiate the inflows."
The idea to combine the expertise of the two companies came about back in late 2017. "As alumni of the Merck Accelerator program, we gave a talk together at a conference organized by Merck in Dubai," says Julian Lübke, Cubuslab co-founder and currently Director of Platform and Product at Labforward. "At the time, we were already joking after our talk that we should actually join forces. Then, in the following year, we worked together on so many projects that the really huge benefits of cooperation for both parties became clear, and the initial idea turned serious."
Since then, the two companies have been operating under the joint Labforward umbrella, which Bungers sees as bringing numerous advantages: "With Labfolder, we have chosen the classic bottom-up approach, i.e. the scientist can use the ELN as an individual without having to change processes in the laboratory. Our Laboperator is currently aimed more at Big Pharma, which wants to change and digitize complete lab workflows." Laboperator enables the connection of any lab equipment, regardless of manufacturer or interface, to provide improved documentation and digitized lab processes. A widespread use of the solution is also in the GMP sector, as access to devices and other resources can be regulated in a dedicated manner and the processing, storage and forwarding of data can be precisely controlled. The audit trail thus covers the entire process from user, sample number and device IDs to analysis data, and can be filtered by auditors according to various events.
In addition to Laboperator and Labfolder, the company has offered Labregister as a third product since 2021. Labregister allows laboratory users to organize their samples, materials and reagents in a database. The Labregister app is a component of the Labfolder digital lab book. "With these solutions, users can take a big step towards a digitized future for their lab," Bungers is convinced. However, he also emphasizes that a lot has been learned from mistakes in many digitization and automation projects in the past. "It is not necessary to keep showing what is technically feasible. It's much more important to show users the clear benefits of advanced digitization for their daily work."
So that interested parties can get an idea of automated laboratory processes and what is already possible today, Labforward has been involved in the two major trade fairs Analytica and Achema this year. Together with other industry partners, they demonstrated at two special shows what cobot-assisted work processes for sample preparation look like, for example, and what advantages digitalized monitoring brings to the storage of hazardous substances. "Real-life experiences like these are extremely beneficial for future laboratory digitization and for user understanding," says Bungers.
Opening of the Connectivity Space Lab
But to ensure that such real-life experiences of laboratory automation are not limited to a few days at the trade fair, Labforward has opened Connectivity Space Berlin together with partners essentim, FLUICS, Smart Lab Architects, SmartLab Solutions, Waldner Laboreinrichtungen, Düperthal Sicherheitstechnik, bAhead, Antibodies Online, 2mag and Better Basic Laborbedarf. In June 2021, the lab was designed and set up in just one week. In a hackathon, the partners integrated devices, sensors and software solutions to provide a new platform perspective on lab technology.
"It's tremendous what you can achieve when you come together in one place, talk to each other and achieve that technology can also communicate better with each other," said Matthias Schuh, co-founder and CEO of smart sensor technology provider essentim. "Because both Labforward and we use web data standards, we can now display data from our sensor solution in real time in Laboperator, Labforward's lab execution and monitoring software." The result is flexible, GxP-ready lab dashboards that show lab staff and auditors current or historical trends in temperature, CO2 levels and other environmental parameters in rooms, cooling systems or incubators at any time, which can be compiled as a report. essentim and Labforward are now planning a joint offering for the sensor dashboard, and additional product and sales collaborations between other partners are in the works.
But Labforward's mission remains the same as it was when the company started nearly a decade ago, says founder Bungers: "We want to support lab teams around the world in their quest to make breakthrough discoveries and deliver high-quality products."