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Report: eighth Annual Smartlab Exchange conference

More than 90 delegates made their way to the centre of Munich, Germany, this year to attend the eighth European Smartlab Exchange. Peter Boogaard reports

There are many conferences within the industry that focus specific attention on LIMS, ELNs and laboratory automation, but what makes Smartlab Exchange different is that it addresses the commonality across the overall laboratory needs and operations. In my experience, this event is non-traditional in nature as it offers a balanced mixture of quality presentations from industry experts, multiple and effective peer-to-peer networking opportunities and focused one-on-one business meetings with solution providers. Many of the conventional events I have attended are passive and lack this level of active interaction.

The icebreaker network session, which is always rated very highly by the delegates, was scheduled just after the opening presentation, allowing delegates to determine within five minutes if it was worth meeting up with someone for a one-to-one later in the day or indeed whether there would be the possibility of a future business relationship.

This year’s programme included the presentation of many case studies and general trends in the laboratory automation space, but there were two particular topics that caught my attention as chairman of the first day. The first topic surrounds the fact that meeting the need for constant product innovations in a legislation-complex industry such a life sciences remains a challenge. The industry is evolving and the so-called pharma-foods, the intersection between food and pharmaceuticals, represents an area of growing opportunities for the food sector and a threat for pharma.

Michael Shanler from Gartner presented the upcoming forces and trends that could impact the laboratory informatics industry. Instead of discussing just individual technology trends and behaviours, the nexus of forces combining cloud technology, increased mobility, Big Data and social media were emphasised as being important to watch in the future. John Bowling from General Dynamics confirmed his observation that businesses want to embrace new technologies, and that they want to move away from ‘traditional’ closed ways of working to become more collaborative. He concluded that this is a team effort between vendors offering solutions with the industry – a view that was confirmed by delegates later in the Q&A session.

It may seem to be a boring topic these days given that discussions have gone on for so long, but the need for standardisation in our industry has never been higher. Forums like this conference present a valuable opportunity for so many people from different regions, job functions and seniority to come together to discuss how the industry can evolve standards and make it a reality. John Wise, executive director of the Pistoia Alliance, chaired the second day and reconfirmed that data integration in laboratories is not straight forward, but it is needed in order to be able to decrease the barriers for R&D innovation. Gerhard Noelken from Pfizer represented the Allotrope Foundation – an organisation sponsored by Pfizer, Abbott, Amgen, Baxter, BI, BMS, Merck, GSK and others – which is targeting the lack of common metadata repository formats. During one of the three special Think Tank breakout sessions, the open framework initiative prompted lively discussion. The conclusion was made that a lot still needs to be done.

Finally, the overall need to enable cross-functional collaboration between research, development, quality assurance and manufacturing corporations was confirmed by the delegate survey IQPC held to identify the top priorities of interest. The survey was shared during the Smartlab Exchange to support the overall discussion and networking, and global data sharing, knowledge management and collaboration to facilitate teamwork make up the delegate’s top three.

While pharma is hunting for innovation to maintain its leadership, the generics industry is looking to reduce overall costs, optimise product quality and implement modern methodologies, such as QbD (quality by design), from other industries. The next industry challenge is how to deploy all these new requirements in such a conservative, risk-avoiding environment that still has many legacy and paper-based processes. I look forward to continuing this discussion at Smartlab Exchange in 2014.

Peter Boogaard is the founder of consulting firm, Industrial Lab Automation, and director at Vialis.

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