Why Invest in a Smarter Lab?

Every single day, lab managers and scientists ask me why they should invest in a ‘smart lab’ when they already have solutions in place that “work just fine.” So let’s talk about what ‘just fine’ really means.

In most labs, ‘just fine’ refers to the tried-and-true–albeit antiquated–techniques used to support cutting-edge research. It often involves a lab tech walking around to manually check, record and transcribe temperature readings in the mistaken belief that a single data point over the course of the day is sufficient. In other cases, it’s the false comfort from a Chart Recorder that it is tracking readouts continuously. Except, upon closer inspection, it’s overwriting valuable data because someone forgot to change the paper disc at the beginning of the month.

Far from being exceptions, these situations happen in every lab across the world. Every day.

Unfortunately, the consequences of these approaches can be catastrophic. Just this past week, 22,000 years of history melted in a malfunctioning freezer because the team couldn’t react to a changing environment fast enough. Priceless samples were lost to science forever simply because the storage environment wasn’t monitored and staff wasn’t alerted to the equipment failure issue. Or this article where a “priceless collection” of brain tissue was lost at a Harvard hospital due to a freezer malfunction.In hindsight, the scientists and laboratory managers would have given anything to change this incident from a disaster to “close call.”

Examples like this are commonplace, whether the tragedy involves ancient ice, millions of dollars worth of tissue samples, or a promising drug candidate. The issue is the absence of systems and data to address these situations. And that’s where the Smart Lab comes into play. Precision and excellent data gathering are two critical aspects of good science. The key is to gather all of the data available and use it advantageously. The Smart Lab delivers complete data sets and the analytical tools for using that data to maximum advantage. One of the first phases is monitoring of existing equipment, which is now seamless and cost effective. Easily deployable smart devices can be fitted to existing laboratory equipment to reveal how various types of equipment are performing (incubators, shakers, autoclaves, ovens) and automatically alert the right people at the right time if readings are out of range.

Equipment monitoring is just one facet of the Smart Lab. At Elemental Machines, we are looking for ways to provide more usable data to laboratory managers and scientists who are working in everything from chemistry, to genomics, to biotech environments. We first automate the collection of data from lab equipment and the lab environment itself, then visualize the data and help identify patterns that form the basis for meaningful correlations. And if something is amiss in the lab itself, having access to the data helps team narrow the search for the culprit(s). Our goal is to insulate scientists from the frustration of not being able to identify or ‘debug’ issues with their environment quickly and easily, which my colleague, Liang Hoe, recently addressed in this post.

Why make our labs smarter? What’s the payback of deploying smart sensors in the lab? It’s the ability to use scientific minds to do great science and solve big problems, not spend precious time watching thermometers. Instead, harness technology to increase bandwidth and accelerate work. And enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that when something malfunctions, your “close call” doesn’t have to become news.