Tom Wilkie looks at developments within Labworks as, under new ownership, it sets its sights on the global stage
Proverbially, there is a Chinese curse that wishes 'may you live in interesting times'. For one company that specialises in Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), Labworks, the past couple of years have been interesting with a vengeance. It was taken over by a huge corporation, PerkinElmer, which itself promptly underwent a massive internal re-organisation. Such enormous changes might well have sunk many enterprises, but there are signs that Labworks is about to come out of this period revitalised and with an aggressive stance in a marketplace that many have regarded as mature and relatively unchanging.
Labworks was developed in 1985 by Analytical Automation Specialists (AAS), a small company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Because of its geographical location, many 'early adopters' of its LIMS were in the chemical and petro-chemical industries of the Gulf coast region. It was then a natural extension to move into areas such as environmental, water (and waste water), food and drink, and Government agencies. Pharmaceutical applications, which figure so prominently among other LIMS suppliers, did not figure highly in Labworks' list of customers.
In April 2001, AAS became part of PerkinElmer Instruments. Hardly had staff relocated to PE's headquarters in Connecticut than, in November 2002, PerkinElmer itself announced a massive internal reorganisation. In the past, its businesses were operating autonomously and organisational structures did not make it easy to collaborate across product lines, let alone across different business or technology areas.
The company's Analytical Instruments and Life Sciences divisions were combined into a new integrated business called Life and Analytical Sciences. The new organisation has approximately $1bn in revenue, more than 2,000 staff working in sales, service and applications support, and an annual R&D budget of $65m. Now, the company believes that it is getting a consistently focused message across to its own staff as well as to its customers.
But what about Labworks, a LIMS system that has not specialised particularly in the life sciences marketplaces that the new division of its parent company sees as vital to the future? As Sandy Schiller, informatics marketing manager for PerkinElmer's Life and Analytical Sciences division, remarked: 'Now that there is synergy between Labworks and the rest of PerkinElmer's biopharmaceutical organisation, how do we fit it?' The question is no less real for being rhetorical.
Her response is that Labworks is in the process of developing a pharmaceutical solution and that the very fact of being within such a large organisation is what makes such a development possible. 'We are leveraging a lot of expertise from the pool of talent within the PerkinElmer organisation as a whole.'
Customers who have stand-alone Labworks LIMS systems need not fear that they will be forced into buying PerkinElmer instrumentation as well. Labworks is platform independent and interfaces exist for it to take data from virtually any instrument, not just those belonging to its parent company.
The advantages of being within a larger company include a more structured approach to development and to testing, while it is possible to combine talent from within Labworks with expertise from elsewhere in the parent company that a small LIMS player, by itself, would never have had access to. This access to wider expertise will be needed in the development of the new LIMS system.
The Life and Analytical Sciences Division of the company already offers 'TotalChrom software' to manage the growing volume of chromatography data quickly and efficiently and which includes TC Publisher, a chromatography reporting tool.
Because of Labworks' original geographical and industry base, the creators of the system, Analytical Automation Specialists, knew the regulatory requirements of such organisations as the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the LIMS needed more focus on the US Food and Drug Administration's regulations 21 CFR part 11 - which are highly relevant to LIMS that are serving the pharmaceutical industry.
Under its new ownership, steps have been taken to upgrade Labworks' capabilities in this respect, with the release of the enhanced security (ES) version that includes support for electronic records and signatures. It generates an electronic signature each time data is entered or modified. Each entry can be traced back to its source and a chain of custody automatically established. Data is also protected from accidental or intentional intervention by providing access to authorised persons only.
The ES version brings Labworks close to full compliance with 21 CFR 11, but full-blown compliance is the next stage - the release that is in development now. 'We are leveraging all PerkinElmer's CFR expertise to get us onwards, so the combined efforts from engineering, product management, quality assurance, regulatory compliance, etc. will make this a success' Sandy Schiller said. It's perhaps significant that TotalChrom, the chromatography data system, already advertises itself as compliant with the FDA's regulations.
A further feature of being able to call upon the resources of a larger parent corporation is that Labworks will be able to pursue this expansion into the pharmaceutical sector without neglecting its existing customer base. 'We will not abandon any of these markets,' Sandy Schiller said. 'Our organisation is always focused on customer satisfaction and serving our existing customer base. There may be synergy with other initiatives elsewhere in the corporation, but we will never forget the needs of our current customers.'
But a sign of the confidence that the company has in the future of its LIMS business comes from the latest release of Labworks. Here, the focus has been geographical as well as technical. The new version now provides one of the most comprehensive language capabilities in the LIMS market, including native versions in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, with double-byte characters for true Asian language support.
Users within a networked installation can each run different languages, and the software is backwards compatible with previous versions that have not been 'localised'. In the past converting a program to a new language usually meant modifying the source code. Instead the company has created a tool to eliminate this issue and created a localisation tool that shortens the time required to implement a new language.
Given its origins in Baton Rouge, Labworks did not need versions in languages other than English, and to this day many of its customers are based in the USA. The introduction of other-language versions is perhaps the clearest sign yet that this is no longer a small, entrepreneurial company but part of a global corporation, and that, under its new ownership, Labworks is determined to establish itself as a significant player on the global stage. With a revitalised Labworks as a competitor, soon it may be the other LIMS companies who find themselves 'living in interesting times'.