LAB SYSTEMS · Two companies add ERP, multiplatform, and project-management features to labware.
MARK D. UEHLING
November 19, 2004 | Like a grizzly bear, a laboratory information management system (LIMS) is a large, hairy beast — and omnivorous. Depending on its surroundings, the next-generation LIMS must devour genotyping data, gene-expression experiments, and proteomics projects. But the proliferation of new instruments and data sources has caused indigestion at the bench.
Now labs have a fascinating choice between two new LIMS vendors. One is a large, well-known company that also makes instruments; the other is a tiny specialist firm from India devoted only to software for scientists and laboratories. Applied Biosystems and Ocimum Biosolutions, with 4,400 and 100 employees, respectively, could hardly be more different. And yet both companies recognize that LIMS for drug discovery must be more flexible.
Ocimum touts its new Pharmatracker product as a multi-platform, multi-user LIMS designed for cost-conscious pharma labs able to spend $50,000 or so for a five-seat license. The company has sharpened its own portfolio of LIMS applications, and developed Pharmatracker specifically for drug discovery. The software enables both industrial R&D and manufacturing laboratories to perform QA/QC on all inventories. If desired, Pharmatracker also provides ways to implement a paperless lab.
A LEADER: With the Applied Bio LS*LIMS's Process Viewer, you can quickly check the status of process runs in real time.
A CHALLENGER: Ocimum designed its Pharmatracker software to be industrial-strength and highly flexible.
"The people who are looking at us today are people who are doing R&D who don't have a big budget, but they want a lot of flexibility," says Ocimum founder and CEO Anuradha Acharya, a 32-year-old graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology. "Some people have had trouble with older LIMS." David vs. ABI
The brewing or food industries, Acharya points out, tend to have processes etched in stone. But in drug research, new experiments or new instruments mean the LIMS must be reconfigured as well. Ocimum is also mindful of the regulatory constraints on pharma, so its LIMS records are all time-stamped and protected under 21 CFR Part 11 audit trails.
Yet the Ocimum software is anything but spartan. It can generate and read bar codes, and it includes a built-in e-mail facility and calculators for costs, dilutions, and buffers. It has a three-tier architecture that allows it to run on any database (not just Oracle), any instrument, and any PC, a nod to the Macs that are still common in labs.
As such, Ocimum is betting that in some labs, Pharmatracker may make an enterprise resource management system unnecessary. The LIMS can generate demand sheets and keep track of quantities of reagents and other supplies.
At Applied Biosystems, meanwhile, the company started from scratch two years ago to create a new LIMS. The goal: give labs an end-to-end solution that integrates many instruments. ABI's new LS*LIMS application is designed to conform to what users need — not impose a predetermined approach.
"You have to go to the lab and help the customers pull it all together," says Maria Rodrigues, product manager. "You have to manage not only the workflow but also the various data sources. It is not just an ABI world. Flexibility and extensibility are key."
ABI, of course, has a professional services group that will help labs customize the new LIMS when necessary. But the company also provides a software development kit so customers can take on that task. Like a database vendor, ABI is developing its own "wrappers" and encouraging competitors to create small software elements that allow LS*LIMS to interact with other brands of instruments. In general, two-way data movement is relatively easy to do; controlling equipment from other brands will be harder unless a wrapper has been written. One wrapper is already finished, working with a Biomek automation workstation.
LS*LIMS has been designed to be as easy to use as possible, with a graphical, drag-and-drop workflow management tool. That feature allows lab managers to quickly reorder their workflows. The software development kit, in turn, can be used to graphically add a customized process or a new instrument. Even the interface to design the workflow can be tweaked — that was not possible with ABI's earlier LIMS, Rodrigues says.
A Tasty Wrap
Of course, hooking up the workhorse Applied Biosystems 3730 and 3730xl DNA analyzers, or the 7900HT Sequence Detection System and the GeneAmp PCR System 9700, will be especially easy. Like the Ocimum LIMS, LS*LIMS is 21 CFR Part 11 compliant; it allows users to manage research projects, design experiments, track reagents, and map and automate processes.
Neither ABI nor Ocimum will name any early customers. Both acknowledge dissatisfaction among some users of existing LIMS, and say customers need to link more instruments and data sources. The sheer profusion of separate LIMS within the same organization has itself become a problem, as the systems have their own difficulties interconnecting.
In a recent report, Thermo Electron and market research firm IDC, a corporate cousin to Bio·IT World, calculated that companies can record as much as a 40-percent reduction in total cost of ownership by standardizing on one LIMS. Possible savings: as much as $300,000 per lab. The same study found that user support activities, applications management and validation, time devoted to troubleshooting, and data management were typically reduced by as much as 90 percent. With the right technology, it appears, the world can get a bit simpler.