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Change and continuity

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What happens when a relatively small informatics company is acquired by a very large healthcare corporation? Tom Wilkie looks at the case of Abbott Informatics and Starlims

Simon Wood, general manager for EMEA informatics for Abbott, was packing for a two-week trip to the USA, having only returned from Dubai earlier in the week. But for all the strain of a jet-setting lifestyle, in an interview with Scientific Computing World he was very upbeat about the benefits that have followed Abbott, a global healthcare company, acquiring Starlims in 2009.

Initially, the consequences of being taken over were fairly minimal and, ‘in terms of the effect on our customers, there actually weren’t any,’ he said. One of the advantages, he continued, of Abbott being a healthcare company is that ‘they have encouraged us to look much more at the healthcare informatics market. They are a very large company, and this gives us financial security and the ability to go and invest in the development of new products – specifically our healthcare informatics product.’

In the past, the healthcare informatics market and the traditional LIMS market have been very separate. Even the acronyms were different: companies selling to hospitals provided LIS (laboratory information systems) and they tended not to compete with suppliers of LIMS (laboratory information management systems).

But geography plays an important role in such markets. Wood explained: ‘The emphasis to begin with is in developing a system for the UK and European market – on the needs of the UK National Health Service (NHS) and other European government-funded healthcare systems. We recruited some people with expertise in that area to help us with the development.’

The expectation is that once a system has been built to meet the needs of the European markets, it will be possible can expand to other regions. But there are already benefits to the business in related areas, according to Wood: ‘We do play in the kind of commercial reference labs that do specialist clinical testing’. In those organisations, the progress in terms of market share has already been global.

In the healthcare arena, ‘the key thing that we’re after is how do we differentiate ourselves from those established players all of whom have been in the market for a significant amount of time now? We are really looking at bringing in our much more modern technology to meet the needs of customers.’

Abbott hopes to change the model of implementing the system, so it becomes easier to configure and eases the task of upgrading, taking advantage of the latest technology and porting data, some of which, given the clinical setting, may have been around for up to 20 years. Wood said: ‘We have a development team in the UK who are dedicated to this but we also have people in the US working on the system.’ It is a joint development between the two groups and the customer.

Healthcare is seen as an expansion that will not divert focus from the existing client base. ‘The idea is that the basic technology that underlies our system will be the same for all customers,’ Wood explained. ‘We sell it as a three-layer technology, where we have the underlying technology and that supports everything else. On top of that we have the applications: for the healthcare market; for the quality manufacturing market –pharmaceutical manufacturing, the oil refineries, etc. We have a system that’s used in the forensics market, and there is one for environmental as well. All of those will have their own teams looking at development of the application and all of those teams use the basic underlying technology. The third layer is using the applications to create the data that is used to run your lab what the customer does on a day-to-day basis.’

In the traditional areas, ‘we will continue to serve our existing customer base. There will be new opportunities which will come up, particularly among smaller specialist labs. They don’t have a lot of resources; they don’t want to have an IT infrastructure; and there our cloud offering can be something that can be an advantage to them. They get the benefits of a LIMS, but they do not have a box in the corner that they don’t know what to do with.’

From the oil industry to pharmaceuticals, markets have become more competitive – and these external pressures are in turn forcing change on the analytical laboratories and on the informatics systems that they use. The acquisition has made possible a strategy that embraces both change and continuity.

About the author

Dr Tom Wilkie is the editor for Scientific Computing World. 

You can contact him at tom.wilkie@europascience.com

Find us on Twitter at @SCWmagazine.