ELN Excellence: The New Lab Notebooks

February 21, 2012

Electronic lab notebooks are no longer just replacing paper, but enabling collaboration, global research, and IP protection.    

By Allison Proffitt   

February 22, 2012 | Of all the life science software that has sprung up in the past ten years or so, electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are the only platforms that have emerged as strategic players across the market. That’s the opinion of Michael Stapleton, General Manager, Informatics at PerkinElmer, who estimates the market penetration is still only 30% to 40%—leaving massive growth opportunities for companies including Sapio Sciences, Agilent, Rescentris, Accelrys and IDBS in the space.    

Of course PerkinElmer isn’t the only company to have identified the niche. The ELN vendor landscape has narrowed significantly in the past few years thanks to mergers and acquisitions, but there are still many players vying to penetrate the marketplace.    

“If you ask five people what ‘electronic lab notebook’ means, you’ll get five responses,” says Kevin Cramer, Sapio’s VP of sales. The sentiment has been repeated for many concepts in life sciences research (and beyond) but it still holds true for ELNs. Sapio entered the ELN market in 2008, when ELNs were primarily a chemistry-focused, paper-replacement product. ELNs are now commonly used in chemistry, biology, and beyond, and the watchword is collaboration.    

“There’s really been a maturing of the industry,” says Jeff Spitzner, chief scientific officer for Rescentris, a division of ELN Technologies. ELN used to be thought of as only a paper replacement option, but Spitzner sees a movement toward enabling collaboration and flexibility.   

“The goal of the ELN is going beyond just the replacement of a paper notebook, and starting to support process efficiency,” says Dominic John, Accelrys’ product marketing director. “People are thinking of more than just the notebook replacing paper, but how can I use this information and turn it from information into knowledge? In other words, create a knowledge base combining the thoughts and intellectual property (IP) from multiple different researchers and partners.”    

Many ELN products include some nifty new collaboration features. For example, Agilent’s most recent version of the OpenLAB ELN allows multiple scientists to collaborate on a single experiment, and enter data and results from various techniques on multiple samples. Audit trails are maintained in an environment that delivers stringent IP protection.   

The collaborative nature of research is expanding the ELN’s role globally as well. Instead of having a platform installed in one of pharma’s big US sites, says Stapleton, companies need a platform to be securely deployable to external as well as internal collaborators across the globe. Internal and external collaborations need to be carefully tracked wherever the research is being done.    

Accelrys’ John is seeing a dramatic expansion of the market in Asia Pacific, especially China, and notes that with increasing contract work and outsourcing, secure connections between partners will only become more crucial. Accelrys recently partnered with Scynexis to provide access to the cloud-based HEOS platform for data sharing and collaboration (see “Accelrys’ Cheminformatics Solution in the CloudBio-IT World, Jan 2012).   

ELNs vs LIMS   

Lines have been blurring between ELNs and LIMS (laboratory information management system) for some time. In general, the strength of ELNs lies is the paper replacement functionality and its ability to support collaboration, workflows, and discovery. LIMS have historically enabled manufacturing, sample tracking, and more regulated environments. The two approach the market from different directions but appear to be converging. It makes sense to link the two, because they both follow the sample, says Sapio’s Cramer.     

Mike Stapleton, PerkinElmer  

As recently reported in Bio-IT World (see, "PerkinElmer Targets Holistic Data SolutionsBio-IT World, Nov 2011), PerkinElmer has taken big steps into the software space lately, acquiring CambridgeSoft, a leading chemistry ELN; Labtronics, maker of the LIMS Link product to link LIMS and ELNs, and Artis Labs (data visualization and data mining). Along with the company’s existing LabWorks LIMS product, the four-pillar PerkinElmer Informatics stable is intended to cover the full spectrum of ELN/LIMS needs.    

Most of PerkinElmer’s customers are large pharma and diversified companies, says Stapleton, where the combination of ELN and LIMS makes perfect sense. These companies need to ”derive knowledge from data, [know] where the data resides, how much of it there is, and how diverse it is in terms of bioinformatics, biology, chemistry, toxicology studies, all the way into clinical and the market,” he says.     

Accelrys has also made acquisitions in the space. Following the Symyx merger in June 2010, bringing the Symyx Notebook under the Accelrys’ umbrella, last May, Accelrys acquired Contur, a Swedish company providing an online or on-premises ELN with a “keep-it-simple” approach. The large customers are moving toward a “convergent lab,” employing ELNs further into development toward LIMS, says John. But John adds that Accelrys fully recognizes that much of market opportunity exists in smaller customers that may not need the LIMS capacity.    

“Systems like LIMS are very expensive to implement in resources, time, services, etc. There’s a very large segment of the market that hasn’t adopted yet,” says John. “The challenge there is these guys aren’t after heavy, expensive, high investment. They want lighter systems just to replace the paper notebook.” Contour could conceivably meet that need. It’s scalable—recently deployed to 5,000 users at the Karolinska Institute—and easy and inexpensive to deploy.    

Rescentris’ CERF product (two-time winner of a Bio-IT World Best of Show award), started as a biology ELN, but as the market matures, Rescentris’ offerings and customers are becoming more diverse, says Rescentris’ Spitzner. Rescentris now offers chemistry modules, and the semantic-based product has ontologies for many different disciplines. The firm is also building a LIMS-like module to give scientists some structured input forms.    

Rescentris’ customers are a mix of nonprofit research institutions, companies, biotechs, and national labs. They tend to be focused more on basic research than manufacturing and about 60% are biology-based. Rescentris sees a lot of growth in academic labs, in part, Spitzner believes, due to the product’s full compatibility with Mac and PC operating systems and the ability to share data easily across both platforms with native installations, not Web-apps. That flexibility and focus on user experience is crucial, says Rob Day, director of sales for Rescentris.    

Flexibility is a common request. Sapio’s ELN Workflow Engine exists as a component of its LIMS and includes standard operating procedures beyond chemistry into biology and regulatory compliance standards like CLIA and Part 11.    

Many of Sapio’s customers are working in the next-generation sequencing space and Sapio has found that many customers need scalable solutions to seamlessly manage data from a number of instruments. Cramer stressed that a key feature of Sapio’s product is a really well-designed API. As ELNs expand into myriad different areas and workflows, great APIs save the user work and cost to be able to quickly and effectively build what is needed and upgrade automatically.    


Version 1 of the Rescentris iPad App  

Notebook Futures    

Recent changes to US patent legislation (see, “Patent Reform’s Brave New World,” Bio-IT World, September 2011) only confirm the need for ELNs. IP protection has always been a driving force behind ELN adoption. But now that patents will be awarded to “first to file” rather than “first to invent” researchers, the time-to-filing is even more crucial for IP protection, says Stapleton. The new standard “redefines the essential nature of having an electronic record and the speed with which you can act on it,” he says.    

Spitzner agrees. Now, more than ever, researchers need to good records, but for different reasons. They no longer have to simply defend their timing, but they must be able to build and file a patent application quickly.    

But for ELNs to truly replace paper, the next frontier is mobility. A keyboard and a mouse aren’t really replacing paper, points out Stapleton, but an iPad can be a true paper replacement. Mobile solutions that accompany the researcher promote interaction with both collaborators and instruments. The notebook should be where the researcher is, which means both a portable user interface and likely a cloud back end as well.   “We see the iPad and the portable form factor in general as being a very important part of the future of our company,” says Rescentris’ Day. The CERF 4.5 product has an “email to CERF” feature that allows researchers to send themselves (or others) email notes within the framework of the ELN—time stamped, with appropriate metadata—from any mobile device during a meeting, for instance. But they’ve also released version 1 of the Rescentris iPad app and versions 2 and 3 are underway.    

“We see the iPad and the portable form factor in general as being a very important part of the future of our company,” says Rescentris’ Day. The CERF 4.5 product has an “email to CERF” feature that allows researchers to send themselves (or others) email notes within the framework of the ELN—time stamped, with appropriate metadata—from any mobile device during a meeting, for instance. But they’ve also released version 1 of the Rescentris iPad app and versions 2 and 3 are underway.    

“This is a native app, the real thing!” says Rescentris’ Spitzner. Gone are the days when the notebook needed to stay in the lab. “Scientists should have access to their science 24/7.”