Instrument Companies Embrace Accessibility, Data Integration and Complete Workflows

On the occasion of the annual Pittcon conference and exhibition, IBO sat down with senior executives from three major instrument system and lab product suppliers—Shimadzu Scientific Instruments (SSI) (the North American unit of Japanese firm Shimadzu), Thermo Fisher Scientific and Waters. Discussing company priorities, R&D approaches and the current state of informatics development, the companies indicated the influence of major industry themes such as increasing instrument ease of use to growth usage, integrating larger amounts of data and access to them, and providing more tightly integrated workflow solutions.

As the world’s largest analytical instrument and lab product company, Thermo Fisher Scientific is in a unique position to provide complete workflows, according to Dan Shine, senior vice president and president of the Analytical Instruments Group. If fact, as he told IBO, this is one of the Analytical Instruments Group’s priorities this year. This is because more complete workflow solutions increase a lab’s productivity. “[Customers] are under increasing pressure to get more samples analyzed more quickly and make use of the data,” he explained. “So we’re doing a lot on both the front end, with sample prep, and the back end, data analysis and data integrity, to automate that process as best we can and put the pieces together.

“That’s an overarching goal we have: to make things simpler and easier to use.”

In addition, workflows create market opportunities “One thing we’ve seen over time as we make the systems easier to use, is a broader use of the instruments versus the need for PhD-level scientists to run the analysis,” explained Mr. Shine. “That’s an overarching goal we have: to make things simpler and easier to use.” He cited the Thermo Scientific Cascadion SM Clinical Analyzer, which draws upon the company’s MS, automation, clinical and software offerings, among other capabilities for a turnkey solution, as an example. Another example is an end-to-end dioxin analysis workflow the company launched at Pittcon, encompassing all steps from sample preparation to data analysis.

The combination of its products to create end-to-end solutions as well new system configurations and options is one of the factors that distinguishes Thermo Fisher’s R&D, according to Mr. Shine. “There are two things that really help differentiate us: the breadth of our technologies and how we can integrate them,” he noted. “This is challenging to do as separate companies because people are concerned about things like sharing intellectual property or how things work,” he said.

Likewise, integration can enable more productive workflows and efficient customer service. “Sometimes when you have multiple companies owning different parts of a workflow, you have people pointing to each other when there’s a problem. ‘It’s not me, it’s them.’ Then it takes a while to resolve the problem, to just figure out where the issue is,” commented Mr Shine. “If you sold them the complete workflow, you own the problem and you have to solve it. This ultimately leads to a better customer experience.”

A key part of the company’s R&D investments is informatics. As Mr. Shine explained, “We’ve invested a lot in infrastructure, whether it’s the Thermo Fisher Cloud or a different SAP-type backbone, but now it is really about how we connect it all together to drive customer benefit.” Such benefits include improved service offerings, including an ability to diagnose a problem remotely and thus send a service engineer with the right part. “First-time fix is a big thing to drive improvements for our customers.” This also makes the service organization more effective. “It takes a lot to train the field service engineer,” he explained. “If we can leverage the expertise remotely, it makes that person that much more effective in front of the customer.”

“It’s about connecting two data points that can actually lead to a breakthrough.”

However, at a higher level, informatics drive data integration, which can improve research outcomes “When I think about our instruments, they generate so much data and the customers generate so much data that we need to help them understand all of it, how to make sense of it, to find that needle in the haystack, find that discovery that hasn’t been made yet,” said Mr Shine. “It’s about connecting two data points that can actually lead to a breakthrough. So I think that is where we’re going—how do we take data science and machine learning and apply that to different, disparate datasets. Helping customers do that will unlock discoveries.”

R&D is also among Waters’ priorities this year, as the company expects a steady streams of new product introductions, a development that in recent years has been led by the company’s TA Instruments segment. Terry Kelly, senior vice president and president of TA Instruments, told IBO, “From a TA perspective, our priorities haven’t changed. It’s really staying in a new product rhythm. We’ve got a pretty robust pipeline of new products.” For the Waters division, introduction of new offerings are increasing, with a new product portfolio a priority for the year. “I think for Waters, unlike TA, we’ve had a slower new product cadence over the last couple of years. The good news is you’ll see, as we go through the year, that we have a lot more new products to introduce,” explained Jeff Mazzeo, PhD, vice president of Marketing at Waters.

With the new products, Waters plans to enhance its market focus. “The other priority is to really continue to focus on the market segments we serve,” said Dr. Mazzeo. “[A]t least from a Waters’ product standpoint, we were very technology ‘out’ in the past. We are now trying to focus more on customer input ‘in,’ and that’s where the market segment teams really have to understand what do our customers need to be successful with our technology today, and so how do we build the right products for the future.”

“We are really trying to bring LC/MS much closer and integrated together.”

In fact, the increased R&D investment at the company is part of what makes the Waters’ R&D stand out. As Mr. Kelly put it, “Not only is it a sustained investment in R&D, but it is an accelerating investment in R&D. [Chairman and CEO] Chris O’Connell has really led the charge to increase our investment in R&D.” R&D investment is also integral to the company’s aim to broaden the base of LC/MS users. “We are really trying to bring LC/MS much closer and integrated together,” stated Dr. Mazzeo. “That strategy is one of the things that we’re going to evolve to: how do we make LC/MS more broadly applicable and deployable across all of our market segments.”

In line with this goal is Waters’ focus on expertise, which Dr. Mazzeo highlighted as another R&D differentiator. “I think what also makes us different is the application expertise we have. It’s always been a difference for Waters, and what we’re trying to do with transformational engineering and the BioAccord, which is the first version of this, is how to we embed our application expertise into the product from a workflow standpoint,” he emphasized. “So our whole goal is really try to decentralize LC/MS.” In the case of the BioAccord, this is expanding the use of LC/MS in biopharmaceutical labs further downstream.

R&D investments also encompass acquisitions, such as Waters’ 2018 purchase of the DESI (desorption electrospray ionization) technology (see IBO 7/31/18). “We think that there is the potential to move imaging in general into the pathology laboratory, whether it’s DESI or through other direct ionization techniques,” explained Dr. Mazzeo. “We think DESI could be a part of that long term and that is why we made that investment. But in the short term, there’s a lot of opportunity for DESI just in biomedical research.”

Waters Connect is a way for us to deliver increasingly more value to our customers with greater insight, faster deployment and business flexibility.” 

The company is also concentrating on the short and long term with its informatics offerings. These plans include not only building upon the strong base of Empower CDS (chromatography data system) users with the UNIFI platform, but an integration of its current informatics product lines. The company’s latest platform, Connect, will debut next year. Describing Connect, Dr. Mazzeo commented, “It will be a single platform built on top of a modern, cloud-ready architecture with compliance designed into its core that will feature an ecosystem of newly created web-based apps into which data from existing Waters software solutions can be ported.” He added, “Waters Connect is a way for us to deliver increasingly more value to our customers with greater insight, faster deployment and business flexibility.”

For SSI, priorities this year also include workflow solutions as well as new markets. As Patrick Fromal, vice president of sales for SSI, told IBO,  “We see our position around HPLC enhancing greatly in pharma, in environmental [and] the emerging markets of cannabis and hemp.” In particular, he views hemp as a new growth opportunity. At its Pittcon press conference, the company highlighted a new dedicated HPLC-based hemp analyzer. “With hemp being a major row crop, its legalization will have a major impact on industry itself, because of all the different materials that can be used from hemp.” These materials include textiles and packaging.

This testing market will grow thanks to the federal legalization of hemp in the US in late 2018, according to Mr Fromal. “The Farm Bill that passed in December says, ‘Yes, hemp is legal as long as it is below a certain level of THC.’ So they are going to have to ensure that the products meet those restrictions. That’s one testing aspect,” explained Mr. Fromal. “But then I think the other aspect is what levels of CBDs [producers] can extract from the crop itself, so now they are going to want to do product quality testing. That will probably be from some growers [and] producers, but I think this is the early onset [of demand, and] from maybe some contract research labs as well.”

In addition to addressing new markets, SSI is also expanding its existing informatics offerings to additional technologies and instruments. Mr. Fromal discussed the ability to use its LabSolutions data management software with many of the company’s instrument platforms in its technology portfolio, such as chromatography systems, spectrometers and thermal analyzers. He also highlighted SSI’s Insight quantitation software for data processing and analysis. “We have another package currently integrated with our MS software, with chromatography to follow, called Insight. This is data review software for faster quantitative analysis,” he noted. For MS, this includes data processing and peak integration. But it is also designed to streamline data review, for instance, explained Mr. Fromal.“With color-coded flags and flexible searching/filtering, it puts data into an easily displayed format so users can easily review items, click on each box for ‘yes, pass’ and send it on for verification, [then] sign off and review.” The company’s new Nexera HPLC Series (see IBO‘s Top Three New Products at Pittcon 2019) provides new instrument software capabilities for its LC portfolio, including unattended operation and automatic diagnostics and recovery.

“We see analytical instruments getting closer and closer to the patient.”

In addition to software innovation, SSI, as part of Shimadzu, is also more closely integrating analytical instruments’ R&D with another of its divisions. “Shimadzu is one of the few analytical companies that also has a medical division. In recent years, Shimadzu has urged its R&D engineers from both the analytical and medical divisions to work more closely together,” Mr. Fromal noted. “Shimadzu wants to see greater cross collaboration because, quite honestly, we see the analytical instruments getting closer and closer to the patient.” He added, “We envision someday that an MS will be in an operating room.”

For SSI, Thermo Fisher and Waters, realizing such growth opportunities, whether in end-user markets, such as clinical testing, or product markets, such as lab data software, will require creating complete solutions and easier workflows, as well as capitalizing on ongoing developments in informatics.

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