Food and beverage companies considering ELN deployment have to look no further than early pharmaceutical implementers for lessons on right and wrong.

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) have become standard fare for most pharmaceutical companies today—so much so that the “early adopter” path that pharma has taken to digitize research and development data has become a model for other industries looking to deploy similar solutions. But should it be? The answer is both yes and no. There are a number of important lessons that can be learned from the pharmaceutical industry’s embrace of ELN technology. Some demonstrate best practices that later adopters would be smart to emulate. Others demonstrate potential pitfalls to avoid. For food and beverage companies considering an ELN deployment, it’s helpful to take a close look at what pharmaceutical implementers have done right, what they’ve done wrong and, even more important, carefully consider how these lessons might apply (or not apply) in the consumer packaged goods industry.   

According to Atrium Research’s 2012 Electronic Laboratory Notebook Survey, only four percent of food and beverage companies have implemented an ELN. At the same time, interest in deploying the technology to digitize critical organizational IP, share data and collaborate more effectively is growing. In fact, 53 percent of the food and beverage companies surveyed by Atrium are considering an ELN project. What can these companies learn from the successes and mistakes of early adopters? Here are four important things to consider.

1) Beware “scope creep”

Just what is the central purpose of an ELN? If one looks at some early pharmaceutical deployments, this can be hard to discern. Across the life sciences industry, there are examples of projects that started off as efforts aimed at simply digitizing paper-based experimental data, later morphing into highly complex, highly customized and costly systems spanning everything from data capture to process codification, workflow orchestration, laboratory execution, analytics and more. This “scope creep” starts off innocuously enough: a solution is being rolled out, and then a stakeholder comes to IT with a “wouldn’t it be nice if…” request. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could also use this system to codify and execute experimental workflows? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could add visualization and analysis tools to operate on raw data from instruments? The problem is that too much customization will ultimately result in a bloated system that requires too much infrastructure and too many resources to support and maintain. In a technology environment where the ease of integration between systems and applications is continually being improved upon, it’s simply not necessary to try to force one solution to do it all. A much better approach is to choose a “best of breed” ELN that does a great job with a core set of first-rate features, rather than a mediocre job with too many superfluous or customized capabilities. Consider the Apple product ethos: Steve Jobs was famous for saying that innovation is as much about deciding what to not include in a product as it is about designing the features that are part of the final package. Focus and simplicity are important.  

2) Time-to-value 

Another problem with scope creep is that it lengthens technology deployment time—a complication that food and beverage companies simply can’t afford. The pharmaceutical industry’s product development lifecycle is relatively slow moving. It can take years to move a lead drug candidate to market, and once on the market, drugs enjoy years of patent protection. In contrast, food and beverage cycle times are much, much faster. Companies need to be able to respond to new market opportunities, constantly changing consumer demands and competitive challenges as quickly as possible, which often means moving a new product from early research to store shelves in just a few months.   

Consider this example from Heinz’s R&D manager and project lead for ELN implementation, Brian Carman: “It’s not uncommon for a request to come in from a food service customer for a new chili, the new chef develops the recipe in a day, a small batch is tested, and the new chili is available to the food service client by the end of the week. That’s how responsive we need to be.”  

Because there’s such a premium on doing things quickly in food and beverage R&D, interest in deploying ELNs to drive more efficient knowledge-sharing and documentation is moderated by fears about getting embroiled in an IT project that drags on for months. Rapid time-to-value is critical, which requires a solution that’s simple to deploy, simple to adapt and scale when needed, and one that doesn’t require a lot of training to get users up and running. Fortunately, as ELN technology has matured, there are now proven, off-the-shelf solutions to choose from that don’t require a lot of customization or IT resources to implement on premise. In addition, Cloud-based, software-as-a-service options can offer especially fast time-to-value by eliminating the installation step completely—an Internet connection and desktop are usually all that’s needed to get started.    

A modular approach is another smart way to streamline time-to-value, which is what Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of natural ingredients for the food, nutritional, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, did when it deployed the Contur ELN from Accelrys. In less than a year, the company rolled out the ELN to 300 scientists at two industry technology centers in Germany, two in France, one in the U.S., and one in Denmark, beginning with an initial test pilot involving about 60 users.  

“The key to our success has been starting simple, making that work and getting the benefit, and then building the system out,” says Morten Meldgaard, project manager and leader of Chr. Hansen’s global implementation. “The pilot really helped us establish a robust system that we could roll out more broadly, and the pilot team members developed best practices that they could share among themselves and, later, with their peers at the official launch.”  

3) Get user input early and often

Chr. Hansen’s test pilot also illustrates the importance of getting feedback and buy in from the people who are ultimately going to be using the ELN technology. This means involving prospective users in the solution selection and product testing phases of an implementation, as well as enlisting various stakeholders to help “sell” the roll out of the technology to a broader audience. 

For example, Heinz has attributed the success of its ELN implementation to the scientists and other stakeholders who got involved early to ensure the system would meet their needs. The implementation team even developed an informal video of scientists discussing how they use the ELN and why they like it. 

“We got scientists talking about the solution and how it helps them, and we made sure to include everyone—chefs, packagers, food scientists and managers—to work with the system and make it better,” says Carman. “This was more powerful than any management edict.” 

Today, ELNs are used by 175 scientists at eight R&D sites in the U.S., ranging from the Heinz’s Ore-Ida potato division in Idaho to tomato chemists and breeders in California. The company also plans to expand deployment of the solution to more sites globally. 

While user involvement and feedback is critical, no technology is going to please 100 percent of an organization’s user population 100 percent of the time. In fact, as early adopters in the pharmaceutical industry have learned, following up on every suggestion is impossible. A more realistic aim is the “80 percent rule:” it’s far better to support 80 percent of the needs of 80 percent of the user base, as opposed to getting in every last feature that’s required by every last person. Otherwise, a project can become stuck in neutral for far too long, delaying time-to-value. 

4) Essential elements 

What are the most important components of a truly valuable ELN? Every organization will have its own unique needs, for course, but several key elements are essential for a successful paper-to-ELN transition. 

 Powerful search capabilities—digitizing data is meaningless if users can’t find and share information quickly. An ELN that keeps information locked within departments or disciplines (such as chemistry data that’s only available to chemists, but not processing engineers, and vice versa) will only have minimal value. A good ELN will include search functionality capable of mining all kinds of scientific data relevant to R&D, including text, images, chemical formulas, etc., and making this information accessible to an array of organizational stakeholders. This helps ensure that tribal knowledge becomes corporate knowledge, and thus more valuable to the entire organization. 

Ease-of-use—at the end of the day, a technology deployment is supposed to make peoples’ lives easier, not harder. Users shouldn’t have to become informatics experts in order to understand how to work with an ELN. A simple-to-learn and simple-to-use solution is a must to ensure broad adoption. 

Secure IP documentation—in this era of “first to file,” documenting and protecting IP electronically is more important than ever. The pharmaceutical industry has had great success using ELN technology to protect IP and support efficient patent filing. Do not consider an ELN unless it has security measures in place to protect data confidentiality, integrity, availability and authenticity. 

Built for integration—the first step in making R&D more efficient is getting rid of paper so that information is more searchable, shareable, reusable and readable. The ultimate goal is a fully integrated scientific enterprise where information flows from early research to QA/QC testing, scale up and, ultimately, manufacturing and distribution as seamlessly as possible. Choosing an ELN that is easy to use and doesn’t try to do too much on its own, but can easily integrate with other critical innovation-supporting technologies (such as lab execution systems and workflow automation tools) will help lay the groundwork for faster, higher quality and more cost-effective R&D across the entire product lifecycle.