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Future labs will 'break the walls of your mind'




Bryn Roberts delivers the introductory keynote at the Lab of the Future conference.Picture: Richard Marsham
Bryn Roberts delivers the introductory keynote at the Lab of the Future conference.Picture: Richard Marsham

The Lab of the Future Congress at the Wellcome Genome Campus began with a startling oration which led into one of the most illuminating panel discussions of the year.

“If Thomas Edison walked into one of our labs today it would not be unfamiliar,” said keynote speaker Bryn Roberts, Roche’s SVP global head of operations, research & early development. “It’s been pretty much the same for a century. At Roche we’re doing a lot of work to develop centres for the future, trying to distill what makes a great laboratory today.”

One of the key themes, said Bryn, is to create a space which will bring people together – “the neighbourhood concept”, he called it, “so people can have chance encounters”. Today’s multi-disciplinary healthcare organisations might have bioinformaticians working with biologists, engineers with data scientists, or molecular scientists with AI developers, and it’s important teams don’t get siloed in.

Or, as Bryn said: “It is a collaborative game and collaborative research is one of the thoughts I want to leave with you with. Where design is concerned, what is it you’re looking for? Is it Edison’s classic lab with some new features or are you looking much further into the future, with a completely different setting?”

The answer from the keynote panel was that a completely different scenario is on the cards. Monika Lessi, Bayer’s VP, head of corporate innovation and R&D, was joined by Steve Martin, head of biopharm discovery at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Bryn in a session titled “How should the Lab of the Future Respond?”, moderated by the conference chair, Michael Braxenthaler, global head of strategic alliances at Roche’s PREDi (Pharma Research and Early Development Informatics) department.

“A lab for me is where we experiment with new ideas to find solutions to new challenges,” Monika told the audience at the campus’ conference centre.

“It’s about breaking down the walls of the physical laboratory but also the walls between disciplines – it’s about breaking the walls of our mind.”

“The trick is making these interactions in the labs not transactional but more a scientist-to-scientist collaboration where the scientists feel intellectually supported,” said Steve. “Interaction also makes people more productive.”

The collaborations, Monika pointed out, will mean “looking at it from a strategic perspective where you share the benefits but also share the risks going forward”.

IN the auditorium of the Wellcome Genome Campus' conference centre. Picture: Richard Marsham
IN the auditorium of the Wellcome Genome Campus' conference centre. Picture: Richard Marsham

New lab concepts are needed to address new realities.

“In the last five years the availability of genetic data has made a big difference,” Bryn suggested. “It’s a revolution of the way we understand disease. There’s lots of discussions in hospitals about how much these data are worth.”

“It’s also about trust,” said Monika. “Trust in science. It’s about knowing how you can be more open and transparent. There’s nothing to hide. It’s about how we can democratise science.”

“The quid pro quo isthat the data could be used to push advertising at you,” Steve said. “With the 23andMe collaboration, five million people are on their books, so if we go back to get more history... it’s an opt-in rate which seems to be quite high so things are in fairly good shape.”

“The notion of data ownership is extremely difficult,” said Bryn. “If you’re in China it’s not a problem – the state owns everything. In the UK the NHS owns everything. In the US it’s not so clear. Who owns the data? Check the contract – you may be surprised what you’re signing away.”

“A big part of this is to do with consent,” added Steve. “It’s not about ownership so much, so it’s going to the terms and conditions. With electronics no one really cares, but with medical data people really do care.”

“And it’s not just consent – it’s informed consent,” Bryn added. “That’s extraordinarily difficult to fulfill.”

“I agree about informed consent,”said Monika. “We use the data for research, but if you don’t get the dialogue right you won’t be able to use the data.”

Moving on, the panel looked at the fact that what goes on in a lab is going to change radically.

Keynote panel discussion with, from left, Monika Lessi, Dr Nathan Brown, Bryn Roberts and Michael Braxenthaler. Picture: Richard Marsham
Keynote panel discussion with, from left, Monika Lessi, Dr Nathan Brown, Bryn Roberts and Michael Braxenthaler. Picture: Richard Marsham

Bryn suggested: “Maybe the lab of the future, that is the next 30 or 40 years, won’t be an in vivo building, it’ll be a human-in-lab building. At some point we’ll blur the boundary and do no more animal testing as it’s done entirely with humans.”

And as technology takes on more tasks, jobs will change.

“Automation has certainly generated discussion in the tech community,” Bryn said. “Are their jobs going to be replaced? It’s an important question. I see fewer requirements for lower-level tasks but there will be no shortage of tasks for higher intellectual contributions, and of course not everybody can make that transition.”

The way all this change is managed is crucial, said the panel during the Q&A.

“We have a lot of focus on change management,” said Bryn. “Between 70 and 90 per cent of initiatives fail, and it’s often because they weren’t managed well.”

“Change management is huge,” agreed Monika. “Having a community really helps because we connect with each other.”

“Standing still is not an option,” said Steve. “Innovation is critical. If you can’t get better about doing the things that enable that, you lose focus.”

The two-day conference was deemed a huge success, with one exhibitor, Melanie Ludwig, marketing manager of Zontal, a digital information lifecycle management platform, saying:“ The Lab of the Future congress has exceeded our expectations. We really liked the field of participants. It was a good mixture of vendors and industry. Beside interesting panel discussions and talks, we had great break-out sessions. At the vendor tables hours we enjoyed intensive discussions about change management and data standards. Especially within the larger companies, change management and internal processes are going to be more relevant for bringing the future to pass than isolated technology decisions. There is still a large gap between the capabilities that pharma currently employs, what is available, and what the thought leaders predict for the future.”

Chair Michael Braxenthaler opens proceedings at the Lab of the Future Congress on Wellcome Genome Campus'conference centre. Picture: Richard Marsham
Chair Michael Braxenthaler opens proceedings at the Lab of the Future Congress on Wellcome Genome Campus'conference centre. Picture: Richard Marsham

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