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Why Lean Research Works in a Biotechnology Context – and How to Do It

Big data is big business.

Gingko Bioworks gained unicorn status at the end of 2017 by closing a $275 million Series D round of funding. A year later, Zymergen closed a $400 million round of financing led by SoftBank. Over the last five years, Intrexon's (now Precigen) market cap has oscillated between $1 and $6 billion.

These three companies are flagship synthetic biology companies whose R&D infrastructures allow them to adopt data-driven product development cycles. Based on their funding and valuations, it’s clear that investors think they represent the future of the biotechnology industry.

Many Fortune 500 companies have set up partnerships with startups like these, as well. The big companies know that their domain expertise and strong market presence provides little protection toward long-term financial performance, and that the ability to leverage big data technologies in R&D processes leads to transformative products with superior performance.

Accordingly, the giants choose to set up strategic partnerships with startups that have the capabilities to generate and analyze more data than they can in-house, despite their larger resources.

Small to mid-size organizations, unfortunately, most often don’t have the financial resources to set up strategic partnerships with the rock stars of the synthetic biology scene. So, they face the challenge of figuring out a way to collect and analyze more data with their existing resources.

While they may not be able to achieve the same scale as Zymergen or Gingko with their current resources, the reality is that every organization can do more with their current resources.

They only require the willingness to acknowledge the need and to embrace a different culture.

The Foundation: How to Facilitate a Lean Culture

There are a couple of resources that can help biotechnology companies become more aware of the rapidly changing competitive landscape.

One of these, Synbiobeta, provides materials like newsletters, podcasts, job boards, and educational resources that help keep track of recent developments in synthetic biology. Their annual conferences are always jaw-dropping events that give the strong impression that the future of biotechnology is written in their conference rooms.

Additionally, companies interested in continuing their journey in synthetic biology may consider joining the Engineering Biology Research Consortium. This unique organization give companies an opportunity to share experience in a pre-competitive environment with a few visionary companies. It also gives them an opportunity to develop personal relations with 100+ academic investigators working in the field.

If Synbiobeta can help understand the current state of synbio, participating in EBRC activities can help organizations anticipate where synbio is headed.

Becoming more aware of the rapidly changing competitive landscape will naturally lead organizations to reconsider their R&D processes. The only way to produce more data with existing resources is to reengineer research processes to eliminate waste.

As in manufacturing, synthetic biology companies’ competitiveness depends on their adoption of a lean culture – on their ability to eliminate waste from their processes to increase productivity.

Sandia National Laboratory demonstrated the possibility and benefits of adopting this approach to a research environment.

Briefly, the first step toward productivity improvement is to formalize the current processes. Most research life science organizations have not formalized their research process from experimental design to data analysis. They rely on their scientists’ experience and intuition to guide the execution of a research program.

The problem is that this lack of standardization raises reproducibility issues that are difficult to assess.

In order to improve research processes, it is necessary to start by formalizing and stabilizing the current processes. This will make it possible to capture process performance data, such as time spent on different steps, variability of outputs, and failure rate. This baseline then makes it possible to focus effort on improving the performance of rate-limiting steps.

The adoption of methods with roots in manufacturing may be counterintuitive in a research environment; scientists may feel that the constraints of formalized processes get in the way of scientific creativity (which is viewed as an essential ingredient in any successful research program). However, the coexistence of lean management methods and scientific creativity can be reconciled by considering that any successful research program depends on the industrial-scale production of quality data.

In other words, scientific creativity needs to take some altitude. It has no place at the level of executing data collection processes.

Instead, it should be focused on the design and improvement of these processes. It should also focus on thoroughly analyzing the type of data that needs to be collected.

The Application: Tools to Support Lean Research Adoption

GenoFAB provides a number of tools to support its clients in the adoption of a lean research culture.

Standardization of the lab organization using the 5S methodology is a good starting point. The visual organization of the workspace is the most tangible evidence of a change of culture. GenoFAB has developed an integrated 5S training program that can provide a first introduction to this lean method.

Organizations interested in adopting 5S can benefit from some personal coaching and strategic planning services along with access to electronic inspection tools that streamline the capture of 5S data. GenoFAB can also develop customized dashboards to help its clients define and monitor key indicators reflecting the performance of their research programs.

The adoption of an Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELN) is also a great way to start formalizing research processes. Modern ELNs make it possible to define experiment templates by combining a number of basic protocols. Setting up experiment templates is an excellent first step toward the standardization of research processes.

Finally, GenoFAB can help organizations that are more advanced in their standardization efforts by helping them automate their processes using business process automation tools.

Is Your Organization Ready for the Future?

As we’ve seen, synthetic biology (facilitated by lean research) represents the future. Is your organization ready?

Even if you don’t have a Fortune 500 budget, you can capitalize on the power of data with your current resources. And to keep up, you need to.

Get in touch with GenoFAB today to set up a quick call discussing your organization’s process or project. It’s time to take the first step toward the synthetic biology future.

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