A scientific viewpoint into the Biotechnology opportunity

Categories: Agile | Big data | Biotechnology | Informatics | Testing |

Behind Belatrix’s ten year history lies remarkable product engineering versatility and a diverse portfolio of clients, including those within highly complex industries such as biotechnology.  That perspective gives us a great vantage point to see the commonalities and cross-functional opportunities across industries.  Here’s an example of how that relates to the Biotechnology sector.

Biotechnology, A User Point of View

One of Belatrix’s more complex, and highly successful assignments was an engagement with a US based enterprise software firm specializing in informatics applications for scientists and chemists.  The client designs and develops applications used by most chemistry related industries – pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacturing, paints and numerous other consumer product sectors.  Their applications are also marketed to universities as both educational and research tools.  For example, in the academic community, most students pursuing Chemistry degrees, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, likely use the firm’s products.  Another example is an application that is one of only a handful of commercially available, off-the-shelf applications that uses highly sophisticated molecular modeling algorithms to deduce orientations and structures of molecules and compiles information from empirical data from various publications and chemical databases to provide chemists incredibly powerful tools. These systems strive to make sense of extremely big data sets.  Having been an end-user myself (as an Industrial Chemist at a major global pharmaceutical firm), I used that application for some five years and merely scratched the surface of its functionality. The tool was incredibly rich in its functionality.  However, despite huge market potential for products of this sort, few companies seem to attempt to tackle developing software to address the rigorous demands of Chemical informatics.  The risks are high — an over-reliance on either computational or empirical data without proper knowledge of Chemistry could yield misleading results and damage the credibility of the output or results. Software development in this area has zero room for error.

Thus, working on this kind of an industry and application environment demands a highly technical skill-set and equally critical, superior quality.  During its 5+ year relationship with this client, Belatrix was tasked with providing QA services for one of the firm’s applications suites.  The collaboration between the client and Belatrix proved extremely successful. That success can be attributed, partly, to the educational system in Argentina which emphasizes strong fundamental science and math skills.  But even more importantly, the culture fosters a willingness to tackle technically challenging tasks that may fall outside the scope of normal QA oriented tasks – such as learning the significance of the products features.  Without that openness and flexibility, such tasks would be meaningless.  From a complexity standpoint alone, this served as a benchmark for several other technically challenging projects.

Overthinking Complexity May Needlessly Inhibit Innovation

It is often the case that a new graduate working in a chemistry or biotech related company – be it in pharmaceuticals or genomics or even consumer healthcare, accustomed to working with current generation software from school or university, finds himself with his hands tied in attempting to improve the workflow of an antiquated, centralized, validated LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) or some other behemoth data repositories that he may need to use on a daily basis for his job. This was my experience and I later learned that it was the same for many of my colleagues.

For businesses, the most critical aspect is security and reliability and hence these systems need to be subjected to rigorous validation procedures before they can be put into production. User friendliness and customization capabilities are usually lower down on the list of priorities. The US lab I had worked in a few years back was a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated environment. That meant that every activity in that lab had to be logged, approved, reviewed, backed up and audited on a regular schedule. Being a pharmaceutical lab, it was under the direct scrutiny of the FDA. The software that was used for running most of the experiments (liquid chromatography) was immensely powerful and robust but a complete beast to use. The user interface was functional but about as welcoming as a visit to the dentist. The consequence of this was a slow learning curve with a high probability of operator error owing to the lack of visibility and transparency that results from having to keep low overhead while prioritizing security and robustness. Of course, this type of experience is not confined to this industry alone.  There are many that suffer from this.  However, the impact can be felt the most by people who have to work with these types of systems as part of their daily jobs.

The good news is that this can be fixed. A cursory analysis of most of these systems reveals that the functionality of these systems is not much different from systems found elsewhere.  For example, the software I described above in the lab for running an experiment had the following components: an interface for running the instrument hardware, a system to collect the data output and a way to access the collected data and to cross-reference with existing data with pre-defined user privileges. Function-wise, it might be considered analogous to an e-commerce website where the machine interface is replaced by the front-end website, the interactive shopping cart comparable to the data output from the machine and a database that stores the information using parameters relevant to the particular set of data. Granted, this is an oversimplification, but the overall structure is not significantly different.  The important piece of puzzle is the knowledge of the way the data is produced, archived and used. That is entirely within the domain of the user.

So, I would like to put forward the idea that customized software that is both robust and user-friendly is not out of reach and that businesses need not be confined to a narrow set of options to which they are presented by current specialists in this field. Starting from lab managers to the executive level, the information can be customized in ways to present in dashboards that help them chart the progress of their respective groups and departments.

Here at Belatrix, we have experience developing and testing tools that are regularly used in laboratory and drug discovery applications. The benefit of working in an Agile framework has resulted in successful execution of our clients plan for breaking new ground with current generation web technologies to enhance and simplify the interfaces for their software that gives them a significant advantage in their markets.

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