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Connecting R&D Data: How to Unlock the Potential of Laboratory Resources

Labs Explorer on January 7, 2020

This guest article has been written by Kalli Angel at Uncountable.

Like in most industries, tight competition and a variable regulatory environment increase pressure on chemicals and materials R&D teams to accomplish more with the same resources. Changing health and sustainability regulations force difficult ingredient replacement problems. Customers seeking their own unique value proposition demand more custom solutions from their materials suppliers. And adding to the challenge, many tenured scientists plan to retire in the coming years, taking with them instincts honed from decades of experience in specific material systems and leaving new graduates in their place starting the learning journey from the beginning.

R&D teams are turning to technology to help navigate these modern challenges. One solution is in furthering data-driven innovation, but it is rarely easy to gather, connect, and analyze experiment data, especially when many R&D teams are still tracking their work in personalized Excel sheets saved on personal hard drives across an organization. Investments in organizational changes and software designed for complex R&D environments will help teams overcome these challenges.

The Missed Opportunities within the Industry

In a 2017 study on the connected future of R&D, McKinsey found that 75 percent of surveyed R&D executives believed technologies like advanced analytics techniques would play a pivotal role in their future R&D activities, but only 25 percent stated that their R&D organizations were currently using advanced data analytics.

Uncountable Inc., which provides integrated electronic lab notebook and laboratory information management software to the global chemicals and materials industry, has witnessed even lower rates of adoption of advanced analytics in speciality R&D areas such as polymeric formulations, synthesis processes, and production scale-up work.

Common causes of wasted resources and missed data opportunities — which can be found everywhere from rubbers and polymers producers to personal care companies — include:

  1. Nearly identical experiments are conducted in different parts of the organization - a chemist can’t find data on a similar project he or she did last year - a chemist can’t easily access data and sometimes can’t interpret the data from another chemist in the same lab - a team of chemists has no way to check which experiments are already being run in a different lab within the same organization
  2. Many formulations may be tested for one specific customer, but a similar customer request requires the process to start again from scratch
  3. Talented scientists retire or move on, leaving little structured data from their years of research for the next generation to build on

For managers, the lack of structured data in R&D can lead to even more wheel spinning and poor allocation of resources: newer chemists receive inconsistent training and guidance based mostly on personal mentoring availability (rather than learning from the full discoveries of the past and current team) and impossible projects may continue for far too long because it is challenging to assess if they are exploring new ground or old territory.

What is R&D Data?

Data is anything that can be structured and learned from across experiments or information which might impact project goals, processes, or outcomes. Uncountable works with R&D teams across a variety of chemistries and companies and helps connect and analyze a variety of different organizational and experimental data, including:

  • Formulations
  • Lab conditions
  • Measurements (including curves, images, and other non-numeric test results) and test settings
  • Ingredient attributes
  • Inventory / Lots
  • Regulatory / Safety data
  • Lab scheduling / capacity
  • Scale-up parameters

Another key benefit of better data management is that organizational functions that currently work independently (but have a great influence on each other) can suddenly share information and collaborate. Uncountable often sees these different groups creating, storing, and utilizing data together in their platform solution:

  • R&D chemists
  • Lab techs
  • Lab managers
  • Tech services
  • Manufacturing
  • Supply chain
  • Account / Product managers
  • R&D / Innovation leadership
  • Regulatory

The Hidden Value in Existing Data

If any of this sounds familiar, the good news is that most of these missed opportunities are easily circumvented by storing data in a structured, connected way. If R&D managers choose the right tools and promote a culture of storing and learning from data across teams, there are immediate benefits to R&D labs that impact the bottom line and the future innovation potential of these organizations. No more time and lab capacity is wasted reinventing the wheel. No more valuable IP is lost when scientists leave. New scientists onboard more quickly to full capacity. And the important work that happens in R&D labs can be connected better to the functions that surround R&D, making it simpler to optimize around cost implications, supply chain changes, and scale-up procedures.

How New Tools Help: The Uncountable solution

Many existing software solutions either focus purely on data storage while ignoring opportunities to learn from past or concurrent experiment data (an issue with most legacy electronic lab notebooks), or they try to solve the data analysis problem while ignoring the broader organizational context or connected potential of the data (a common problem with traditional Design of Experiments softwares like JMP and MiniTab). The true scaled potential for R&D data is only realized when these two goals work together, and the right software partnership can make this process easier.

© Courtesy of Uncountable

Uncountable, an enterprise software company, partners with materials and chemicals R&D teams to accelerate the journey toward a data-driven R&D culture. Uncountable’s web platform pairs structured data storage with advanced analytics tools, and they work closely with their customers throughout the implementation and training process, supporting change management efforts and ensuring that the platform is customized to each R&D team’s unique needs and data opportunities. Because Uncountable’s software centralizes a team’s experiment data as it is created, it enables communication and collaboration between scientists everywhere in the organization. The Uncountable web platform ensures that efforts to record experimental data are immediately rewarded with improved organizational transparency and analytics insights.

How to Start unlocking the potential of your R&D data

When they begin the discovery process with a new customer, Uncountable recommends a few important initial steps.

- 1 -

First, evaluate what data, if any, is already structured
in your organization and build on it.

This might be ingredient costs and properties from SAP, existing product formulations, or common testing standards or conditions, or other data stored in existing databases in a structured way. By building on top of a data scaffolding that is already clean and familiar to scientists, it is possible to create early wins in the organization from advanced analytics while the broader database of experimental data accumulates over time. This can also help with change management and adoption, as scientists will see information in the system they are already used to working with, rather than starting from a blank slate.

- 2 -

Second, start to get everyone speaking the same language,
or do the work to translate the differences.

One of the biggest barriers to truly connected experimental data is when similar types of data are created under slightly different conditions, such as varying units of measure or multiple viscosity tests across different labs. Once the alignment decisions are made, Uncountable can create automatic conversions and build nudges into the data capture process to encourage uniform data without being disruptive to the scientists’ process.

- 3 -

Finally, expect to use energy and resources
on change management.

Uncountable supports this process with their account management and data science teams, helping R&D teams better understand their existing processes with a data-focused lens, training scientists and other platform users on new systems with an emphasis on the returned value to their own work, and cleaning and uploading important historical data for future scientists to build on.

Despite the challenges and the work required, Uncountable’s most important advice is to start as soon as possible. There are many chemicals and materials companies that have waited years for a perfect system to emerge or who have put off the shift toward a data-driven R&D culture because they don’t have resources to clean and organize decades of past experimental work. They are still waiting, and in the meantime, they continue to lose the potential, scalable, connected power and insights from all of the R&D data they are creating right now.