LabVantage: Transforming the Landscape of Lab Informatics

With over 35 years in providing solutions for lab informatics, LabVantage has become a trusted name in LIMS (laboratory information management system) and ELN (electronic laboratory notebook) solutions with its configurable offerings and comprehensive customer services. IBO had the opportunity to converse with Robert Voelkner, vice president of Sales and Marketing at LabVantage, at Pittcon last month about trends in the informatics space, the importance of customer engagement and future projects.

In February, LabVantage launched LabVantage 8.4, an updated version of the company’s LIMS, which also incorporates an ELN and LES (laboratory execution system). The latest version enables numerous capabilities aimed at helping streamline efficiency and effectiveness in the lab. According to Mr. Voelkner, the various functional improvements were mostly driven by customer feedback. “We meet with [our customers] on an annual basis—they feed us their input, needs and desires, and we are able to expand the footprint of the product and address their particular needs, whether they are regulatory or functional,” he explained. “We usually take it as an advantage, also, to introduce new technology into the system.” One of the new technology features provided in LabVantage 8.4 is the Work Assignment and Resource Planning module (WAP).

“If you think about a lab, it is like a big factory,” Mr. Voelkner said. “What you would like to do is use the resources you have on hand on the workload that is coming in, and be able to schedule it in the most optimized way to get it to the lab as fast as possible in the quickest amount of time, [at] the lowest cost and utilize your resources in the best way possible.” WAP helps facilitate this process through offering multiple, flexible options. “You can set up things like personal calendars for your individuals or your departments or your enterprise; you can look at their workloads currently, their qualifications and training, what instruments are available, and which ones have been calibrated, maintained or are available for use, and then compare that with the workload that has been scheduled into the lab,” explained Mr. Voelkner. “The lab planner can then optimize those schedules to make sure that you are utilizing staff correctly and not overloading high performers [for example]. You can look for areas for improvement or training by utilizing resources correctly, so it is a way of being much more efficient.”


Connecting to Customers

Developing these updates is an interactive process because an important part of the company’s business strategy is staying engaged with its customers. As the vice president of Sales and Marketing, Mr. Voelkner receives a great deal of market intelligence, but customer feedback also heavily drives innovation at the company. “We actually have user conferences that we host annually, both here in North America as well as overseas,” he said. “If you are an oil and gas, or food and beverage [customer], or in the pharmaceutical industry, or in clinical testing or medical labs—what are your needs? What else can we be doing for you? We take that input and that goes into our product planning, and then that drives what goes into the subsequent updates.”

The updates are established by LabVantage developers and engineers. “We will look at what is needed in the marketplace, and then we will put together product plans and give them to the engineers, [who] develop new capabilities,” Mr. Voelkner stated. “It is an evolutionary process, so anything a customer has today in their system when they put the new update in, they do not have to redo; it still runs the way it did, but the new function can be enabled by them when they are ready for it.”

“We can actually administer [customers’] environments, their operating systems, their patches, their backups—we can really be turnkey for everybody.”

LabVantage provides an enterprise platform, but the company is able to scale its solutions, as Mr. Voelkner indicated, from departmental to multi-site to global deployment. “The majority of our business comes from multi-site deployments, but we do single site [as well],” he said. “I have [deployed] little 5-user R&D labs, [while] our biggest customer has probably over 6,000 concurrent users across 20 countries all on one server, sharing data in a harmonized way. So it ranges.”

The company provides varying licenses and payment models to cater to its customers as well, whether they be large, broad-based companies or budding startups. “Most of [the larger] customers buy what are called perpetual licenses—they buy once and use it forever,” explained Mr. Voelkner. “But we also do subscription pricing and SaaS pricing as well. That is really attractive, especially to smaller customers—these are clients that have no IT center, they have no IT people. They just have a lab and they need something really quick, so we can put it on a cloud and they can pay as they go, which is very cost effective for them. We do a lot of biotech startups; we wanted to be flexible enough so it would be easy to pay for it.”

Along with flexible pricing models, LabVantage also stresses customer support. “No matter what licensing model [customers] use, they are also going to have an email support contract with us,” Mr. Voelkner said, explaining that this entitles customers to round-the-clock help desk access in case of any questions or issues. Customers are also able to update when they want, as LabVantage does not force software upgrades. Mr. Voelkner cited pharmaceutical labs as an example, which can have costly validation processes and thus are more reluctant to update lab software frequently. Even if there is no updating, LabVantage will continue to provide support. “We also do what is called managed services,” he added. “A lot of these companies are outsourcing their IT support to third parties, so we can actually administer their environments, their operating systems, their patches, their backups—we will do all of that for them. We can really be turnkey for everybody.”

Services are a significant aspect of customer support, and the company provides a variety. “Services are implementation of new systems, upgrades or extensions—any new work that a customer would like us to do, we will do that for them,” said Mr. Voelkner. “We do validation work for regulated labs. Training is [also] a big thing, not only initially but ongoing, so training classes are offered. And then the support organization, which is the customer care and help desk support. If [customers] have a problem or issue that has come up, we will diagnose it, help fix it and we will work with the engineers to get a patch to repair [it]. Of course, included with that is access to all the new updates that we are putting out every year.”

In regards to its LIMS, LabVantage offers a great deal of flexibility—although be careful to not call it customization. “We hate the word ‘custom,’” Mr. Voelkner said with a laugh. “Every system may have an element of customization. I do not see every single system we do as ‘no custom,’ but I would say the majority of the deployments we do have zero customizations in them. Instead, we like the word ‘configurability.’”

Essentially, as Mr. Voelkner explained, this comes down to a technical issue of coding. “The differentiation there is that in our solutions, there are a whole bunch of tools that we provide that allow you to change the behavior in the business logic of the system by just point-and-click, filling out forms, dragging and dropping things, changing behaviors like workflows and so forth, add fields, change web pages, things like that—that is configuration,” he continued. “Those configuration changes survive all the updates that come out in the future, so they never have to be redeveloped again, and this way, the customer gets a really nice, tailored system. ‘Custom’ is that there is something we cannot do in the system that is very unique to that client. The configuration tools are not flexible enough, so then we actually have to write code, like Java or something like that.”

“There is usually an edict from above: ‘Thou shalt not do custom in the project.’”

This differentiation between customization and configurability is essentially based around what is most convenient and cost effective for the customer, according to Mr. Voelkner. “The reason you do not like [customization] is that there is a cost to that, an ongoing support process and upgradability issues and so forth, so we push customers away from that, and the market is very open to that—they do not want custom solutions,” he said. “When I started back in the ‘80s, every system was custom code. The answer was always ‘yes’—no matter what the customer wanted, we would just write code. What would happen is the next [version] would come out and they would have to start all over again, and that is costly. Those days are long gone,” he continued. “The market now wants commercial, off-the-shelf solutions that are purpose built for their needs, and we have a whole bunch of purpose-built solutions for different markets. They want to be able to use those and then do minor configurations going forward.”

As Mr. Voelkner elucidated, customizable solutions can end up causing more issues for customers. “I think it is just a business direction, too; nobody wants to waste money when they do not have to,” he said. “Now when we engage clients, the charter is that we are going to use the software the way the vendor has it and we have to have a really good reason not to do that. There is usually an edict from above: ‘Thou shalt not do custom in the project.’” He cited a situation where a customer made many customizations but had issues when upgrades came along, but by using visual workflows and other capabilities ended up eliminating approximately 80% of the custom code, with the ability to upgrade whenever they desire. “The trend to the older customers who tend to be more custom driven are refactoring those systems as we upgrade them again,” he added.

Another update provided in LabVantage 8.4 is improved data privacy provisions. “We work a lot in clinical settings, so there is a lot of patient health information that has to be protected,” Mr. Voelkner indicated. “We want to put even greater controls into the system through better encryption and making sure that no personal information is accessible by anyone who works in the lab, because you want to be able to protect the identity of these individuals that are being processed through the system.”


Clouds and Standards to Streamline Data

As seen across many sectors in the sciences, as digitization continues to become prevalent, cloud-based data storage offerings are increasing significantly. “The market is definitely driving certain trends right now,” Mr. Voelkner said. “One of the things that is great about LabVantage is we have probably the most technologically advanced platform. All user access is through the browser, so there is no software that has to be installed on a workstation. Portable computing has been pretty commonplace, so as long as you have a tablet and a browser on that tablet, you can get access to the system in a portable way—that has been going on for years.” Traditionally, companies would manage data by storing it in their own sites. “On the server side, all the data, all the business logic in the guts of the system, historically, that has always been stored and posted on servers that are on premise within the company,” he stated. “I would say within the last 2 or 3 years, almost all of that has gone to the cloud.”

LabVantage is “very cloud-friendly,” as Mr. Voelkner noted, and the company has partnered with Amazon Web Services and is providing cloud hosting services to customers as well. “What is interesting is that the more traditional, longer-time customers with us, after upgrading their software, they are taking that as an advantage to re-host on the cloud; they are thinking about modernizing, outsourcing and moving things to the cloud, big and small,” he said. “So that is definitely a trend. I would say this time next year, I bet you will have very few on-premise customers going forward. It is an IT strategy—not just in LIMS, but in IT in general, to go to the cloud.”

“For us, with IoT, we are already there; we have been doing it for years. The vendors sort of have to catch up.”

A burgeoning trend is the standardization of lab informatics, with organizations like ASTM and the Allotrope Foundation (see New Progress for Lab Instrument Data Standardization) working to standardize and contextualize the collection, management and analysis of data. As labs and instruments become more digitized, that means more data will need to be processed, and without data and informatics standards, this can be a major challenge due to the many data formats. “Right now, every one of the vendors [at Pittcon] has a different output from their instruments, and it is completely proprietary and, in some cases, not well-documented, either. Instrument people are not very good software people, unfortunately,” Mr. Voelkner said.

“We need that data to be able to flow into our systems, and, right now, we have to write drivers for every make and model of instrument. It is very costly, and when the instrument changes, those drivers need to be updated, so it is a cost for our customers [that is a] burden for them, frankly. If we can standardize the way that information is interchanged, that would be a whole lot better,” he continued. “We can build a standard and hook it up to any ancillary system that is in the [lab] really well. I would love to see that in analytical and other clinical areas as well—we are not there yet, unfortunately, but that is definitely the place to go.”

IoT, another growing area, is not new to informatics companies like LabVantage. “In the lab, everything is on the network—all these devices, whether they are standalone benchtop devices or not, eventually we are going to put them on the network, they are going to become a network-adjustable device and then we are going to communicate with them,”explained Mr. Voelkner. “So for us, with IoT, we are already there; we have been doing it for years. The vendors sort of have to catch up. If they had standard protocols, it would be more plug-and-play—right now, it is plug, develop a drive, then play,” he continued. “But it would be nice if it was like a printer, right—when you plug it in to a USB port, the printer suddenly works with your operating system. It would be great if instruments worked the same way, though we are not there yet.”

One factor as to why vendors are behind in this field is the exclusivity of their brands and data. “The vendors are not always completely cooperative,” Mr. Voeklner said. “A lot of it is proprietary, so they do not want to share. By being proprietary, it [somewhat] locks you into them and their software, so they need to kind of give it up and start thinking about becoming part of the community. I have been doing this for 35 years and we have been talking about this for 35 years or more.” He added, “We are the repository for that information. If they worked that way, it would be fantastic.”


Loading the Future

Looking ahead, one of the many projects LabVantage is undertaking is dealing with large datasets that have not undergone any analysis. “We have done a pretty good job of covering the lab, not only LIMS, but [also] with our ELN for researchers, and there is a lot of functionality in there that we have created,” stated Mr. Voelkner. “One area that we sort of put off to the side is the management of raw data. Vendors all have PCs hanging off their instruments and they are generating gobs of data—that’s a technical phrase, ‘gobs of data’—a lot of raw data and a lot of process data, but, really, the LIMS just cares about the result, the answers. They don’t care about the raw data. But what has happened is this data is sort of out of control,” he continued.

“For data integrity issues, the customer is very worried about what happens to those files on the PC—they can get deleted, they can get updated or modified accidentally or on purpose, they are lost in some cases,” he explained. “So we are building a scientific data management solution which will basically collect, gather, and archive and protect that data so [customers] do not have to worry about it being on individual PCs all over the lab—it will be in a centrally controlled area and under the control of the system, so that we are preserving the integrity of the data and making it accessible in the future as well.” Customers can look forward to this solution in the near future. “By early next year, we will have that,” he said.

As the informatics industry is always evolving and a LIMS is essential in streamlining workflows, there will always be new projects for LabVantage to take on in a variety of markets, such as oil and gas, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, or paints and coatings. “It is a really interesting market—it never gets old,” said Mr. Voelkner. “We have the world’s largest winery that is using our system, [for example,] so everything from grapes to glass—LIMS is involved through that whole process, which is quite fascinating.”