Cloud: The Key Element to PerkinElmer's Scientific Collaboration

Feature Story

Cloud: The Key Element to PerkinElmer's Scientific Collaboration

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  December 09, 2014

Often, conversations around migration to cloud computing tend to focus on cost benefits, and there are, without doubt, significant cost savings that can be achieved through moving business applications to the cloud. But, while cost is certainly a contributing factor, we shouldn’t allow us to overlook the tremendous opportunity cloud represents for business process enhancement and increased collaboration – the factors that increase revenue and drive real business success.

PerkinElmer, for instance, which kick-started the ELN (Electronic Lab Notebook) market more than a decade ago, has realized that, despite the incredible benefits its original developments have enabled, the cloud presents and even greater opportunity.

One of the leading scientific software business in the world, PerkinElmer got into the informatics business a quarter century ago with its ChemDraw product, an application for drawing chemical equations, which has some two million individual users worldwide. It introduced the world to the ELN concept more than ten years ago, which has blossomed into a $250M annual market globally, driven largely by large pharmaceuticals brands and their needs for protecting intellectual property. The concept was rather simple by today’s standards, replacing scientists’ paper notebooks with electronic documentation that would be searchable, archivable, and sharable.

Since the advent of the ELN, however, business models have changed, and collaboration has become a critical part of business processes. Specifically for pharmaceutical firms, this need results largely from the outsourcing to CROs (Contract Research Organizations), which are found across the globe, many in China. In addition to the CROs, collaboration extends to other research facilities, consultancies, and educational institutions, all of which play a role in the R&D lifecycle.

“This has proven to be a challenge in terms of the way people have deployed ELNs over the last 10 to 15 years,” explains Karen Madden, President, Informatics (News - Alert), PerkinElmer. “Businesses have deployed them as on-premises, centralized technologies and it’s been somewhat awkward to include distributed environments in their architecture, so people have resorted to other [generic] business technologies. The truth is that the original, first generation of ELNs has reached maturity – and perhaps even a market saturation point. With only about 25 percent adoption by scientists worldwide, the ELN market has one dominant user group – large pharma – while most educational institutions and smaller pharmaceutical companies would benefit from the functionality, but lack of budget and IT expertise precludes them from implementing the on-premises enterprise ELN.

As a result, it is clear a new generation of product is needed to meet the expanding needs of the existing user base, but also to create something more than the original ELN. What the current market needs is a truly global collaboration platform for scientists.

Introducing Elements

These factors led PerkinElmer to develop its latest platform, based on newer technologies, which will not only enhance the experience for existing users, but expand the target audience to the currently unserved 75 percent of the market. With Elements, which moves its existing ELN technology into Amazon’s cloud environment – along with many additional features – PerkinElmer now provides a full collaboration platform for the scientific research and academic communities in their entirety.

“Smaller biotech companies and educational institutions that don’t have the dollars to invest in the infrastructure up front, but have the need for the functionality of an ELN, are now able to get it,” says Madden. “Even our larger customers, which have the extensive enterprise ELNs, have expressed a need for a cloud-based offering that will allow them to place selected data into the Elements ELN to make it available to outside collaborators. The two solutions can coexist very nicely.”

Taking advantage of the cloud model, users can subscribe to the service on a monthly or annual basis, giving them the opportunity to spin up (or down) collaboration projects that might last for three months or two years. With individual user-based licensing, when projects arise, cloud ELN instances can be spun up for sharing with collaborators across the globe. Likewise, when projects conclude, the instance can be shut down quickly to avoid paying for unused capacity.

Of course, the other beauty of a pure cloud solution is the extensibility of applications to multiple devices. PerkinElmer had previously reimagined 25-year—old application ChemDraw for the iPad, resulting in an understanding that it’s not just about the mobile digital environment, but also about leveraging mobile capabilities to make tasks easier. Whereas previously, each individual function had to be included in a central monster of an application, the mobile app environment today allows individual functions to be developed as unique apps. For instance, there can be one app for remote monitoring of experiments, another for uploading images or other attachments, still another for recording voice notes and appending them to an experiment. In fact, essentially any workflow function can have an app that doesn’t require constant use of an enormous, resource-draining comprehensive application, though all its data and information is integrated into the main project application.

Considering all the possible features that can be integrated, the new product brand seems rather appropriate, with its modular approach and the way it breaks down a behemoth application like the ELN into many smaller elements.

In addition to being helpful from a mobility perspective, the flexibility of the Elements platform also makes it easily customizable to any scientific field. Chemists will require different elements than physicists and biologists, for instance, but each will be able to assemble their own unique dashboard of elements that is designed for their own unique needs, but is completely sharable for collaboration.

But, in an age where countless collaboration apps already exist, why don’t scientists just use Evernote (News - Alert) or other similar solutions? Fundamentally, very little, until you start to consider the specific features that make Elements what it is – a solution for the scientific community.

“Evernote has no idea what a chemical structure is or what a protein is – pasting a picture into a note is as scientifically aware as Evernote will ever be,” explains Madden.

Elements is more than simply managing notes – it’s about managing experiments and contextual awareness around the data it stores about those experiments. For instance, upon modifying certain structures in an experiment, you may want Elements to predict the outcome of the revised experiment based on its knowledge of the chemical structures, showing how a reaction might change, saving potentially very significant time and money. “There is very high level scientific awareness,” she adds. That’s not to say we won’t integrate with things like Evernote, because if people want to use Evernote to take notes a part of their experimental observations, we want to enable that. In fact, we have created an element for Evernote.”

Data Safety and Security

Of course, in competitive industries such as these, especially where you regularly find CROs working with multiple companies at the same time, security is of the utmost importance. One issue is data safety, referring to the mental hurdle users have to overcome when they consider placing their research data in the cloud. PerkinElmer is confident in its choice of AWS as its cloud partner as far as the safety of the data goes.

Security, meaning access, is another story altogether, referring to the combination of product design and user access control. Scientists, naturally, need to know that only approved colleagues, and collaborators will have access to their data and information. PerkinElmer has designed Elements with a group-based security policy that can be turned on and off for individual users as needed. Access is granted on a per user basis based on which groups they are part of.

The security elements are managed within the main Elements app, which doesn’t require a full-blown IT group to manage and implement. What it does require is that organizations have rights policies in place that can be used to define security and access. As one might imagine in such regulated markets, most of them do. In fact, PerkinElmer has been dealing with this issue with its on-premises ELN installations for more than a decade, with some of its customers having many thousands of users that aren’t allowed to see each other’s data. Even for approved collaborators, once a project or experiment reaches the completed phase, it can be “signed and closed,” allowing it to be viewed but not edited any longer –very common requirements for any regulated industry.

Market Reaction to the Elements Experiment

When PerkinElmer began its beta testing with a few institutions, immediate feedback was what they should have anticipated – highly positive response but that there are certain features or elements missing and others they don’t need (those, of course, might be intended for other fields). It seemed the company was onto something big. But, the real acknowledgement, however, came when updates were able to be rolled out with a few days with new or updated features thanks to the cloud model.

“We are taking advantage of the power of the cloud to react very quickly to support our customers and add functionality,” says Madden. “The product release times are greatly reduced compared to what we have been able to do in the past.”

The extensibility into the academic space also benefitted from the same flexibility, with PerkinElmer quickly realizing the needs differ quite dramatically between research and education. In fact, when educators started working with the application, they acknowledged the “cool factor,” but quickly expressed a desire to be able to integrate with other existing software for the education space, like Turn It In, which fits into the PerkinElmer strategy of not recreating every wheel quite well.

That said, the ability to collaborate electronically is already proving valuable. One professor in Madison, Wisconsin, is taking advantage of the flick to share capability – driven by membership in an approved user group – who sends structures to his students on their iPads, who then identify mistakes and flick their responses back. The professor says the app has increased in-class participation by 60 percent over traditional, paper-based assignments.

The positive reaction isn’t surprising. Today’s students and new workforce entrants are used to operating in the cloud and sharing and collaborating seamlessly across networks and devices. In fact, they are not only used to it, they demand it.

“Their expectation is they can have their data, images, whatever they want wherever and whenever they want it,” says Madden. “Elements fits very nicely into their expectations and the way they live their lives.”

It’s this kind of innovation and flexibility that has brought early success to Elements and has allowed it to convert some if its free trial users into paid customers with access to the features complete capabilities. Ultimately, moving to a cloud-based model has allowed PerkinElmer to develop a modern solution for a modern audience, while also extending its proven capabilities to a previously inaccessible market. With Elements, the company now has the opportunity to bring its application to the 75 percent of scientists that have not enjoyed its features previously, which is mostly the academic community

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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