From developing therapeutics that are sustaining human life, to materials that are sustainable for our planet, biotechnology and life science R&D is a mission-in-mind industry made up of individuals and organizations that are striving every day to better the world we live in. At Benchling, we are striving to build a platform that is elevating the way scientists work.
Earlier this month, Benchling hosted Benchtalk West, our first West Coast user forum, where industry leaders across the life sciences gathered to discuss their groundbreaking work, the challenges they face, and the solutions they are discovering. Speakers included:
- Tom Crevier, Director of Automation, Equipment, and Data Management, Juno Therapeutics
- Deven Dharm, Director of Software Engineering, Bolt Threads
- Patrick Johnson, Systems Analyst, Bolt Threads
- Jeannette Grant, Associate Director of Project Management, Adicet Bio
- Kristy Hawkins, Co-Founder and CSO, Antheia
- Jackie Papkoff, CSO Microbiome, Assembly Biosciences
- Hari Jayaram, VP of Technology, Spotlight Therapeutics
Life science R&D is evolving faster than ever, and despite the wide variety of questions individual organizations are racing to answer, they all face similar challenges. Here are five key takeaways that arose from the day’s presentations and conversations about the new frontiers of life sciences R&D.
1. Data needs to actively drive insights, not lie idle
Scientists, whether in nascent startups or in seasoned labs, are discovering breakthrough technologies. As labs grow, both in people and process complexity, they need software solutions that aren’t just passively recording data, the way legacy systems like paper notebooks and custom LIMS do. Rather, the future of biotechnology calls for software that actively supports the lab’s goals as its R&D pipelines progress.
Members of the Bolt Threads team joined Benchtalk West to share how they use data to drive innovation as they produce nature-inspired materials and textiles. Patrick Johnson, Bolt Threads’ Systems Analyst, reported that with Benchling’s applications the Bolt biology team flexibly tracks their fermentation data, the materials team structures their data and defines their workflows, and all of Bolt’s teams communicate more readily with one another. Now, Bolt has complete visibility into their R&D pipelines and can chart the course of their research with greater confidence.
Benchtalk also featured Jeannette Grant from Adicet Bio, a company dedicated to immune cell therapy. Jeannette discussed how Adicet uses Benchling’s platform to set standardized guidelines for record keeping and data entry that are followed company-wide. Adicet also uses Benchling to compile data for long term analysis. As Adicet grows, both new and veteran employees record cell engineering experiments, track gamma delta T-cells, CARs, and TCRs in the Registry, and easily analyze their complex cell engineering data.
“Benchling has allowed us to answer a lot of long term questions about our data that we wouldn’t have been able to answer before. We have months and months of data on process development that, without Benchling, we wouldn’t be able to compile and analyze.” – Jeannette Grant, Associate Director of Project Management, Adicet Bio
2. Software for biotech needs to bend, not break, in the face of variation and iteration
Life science R&D companies are highly individual, with unique life cycles that vary from company to company and from iteration to iteration over time within a given company. The biotechnology industry needs software tools that are flexible enough to bend when processes evolve, rather than breaking when new methods develop.
“We don’t know exactly how the process is going to evolve, so we need a super flexible system, which will allow us to evolve literally every day, every week… Benchling essentially allowed us to handle that – a universal source of truth and a super flexible system that allowed us to evolve rapidly.” – Deven Dharm, Director of Software Engineering, Bolt Threads
For many labs, their discoveries are unprecedented – and in some cases unpredictable. New iterations arise out of innovations, tweaks to the process here and there that are conceived along the way. At Bolt, their scientists are discovering new constructs for their materials faster than their paper notebooks could keep up. Not only are they pioneering new technologies, the ways in which they discover and develop those technologies are constantly evolving.
Spotlight’s VP of Technology, Hari Jayaram, put it this way,
“At Spotlight we are pioneering a new class of biologics capable of editing specific cell populations in vivo. This breakthrough work requires fast iteration cycles that are closely monitored and centralized. It’s important that we can continuously ask ourselves in real time – is the process improving?” – Hari Jayaram, VP of Technology, Spotlight Therapeutics”
In order to manage and monitor their highly iterative processes, Spotlight uses Benchling to track, measure, and standardize their data.
3. Platform companies are the new norm and biotech R&D needs trackable, reproducible, shareable data
Biotech companies have multiple teams, each with their own highly specific functions and workflows. Yet each team depends on the other to make one cohesive pipeline. Many of the companies represented at Benchtalk West not only research and discover novel technologies, they also design, develop, and build working versions of those technologies.
“As an industry we’re really undergoing a once in a generation transformation, and I think that’s both in the context of larger and larger volumes of data, as well as explosion of different platforms from cellular engineering, to gene editing, to microbiome engineering and plant biology.” – Chris Bond, Consultant and Biopharma Executive
CSO and Co-Founder Kristy Hawkins and her team at Antheia are developing novel strains and fermentation processes to produce plant-based pharmaceuticals. Their goal is to implement these procedures as a platform for drug discovery. To transform their pipeline, multiple teams need to be able to track and measure everything across their many fermentation process iterations, such as the number of strains built and the variety of enzymes tested. They also need to be able to analyze those iterations to chart improvements.
“For each project we do have pretty big cross functional team, so we have protein engineering, strain engineering, fermentation, bioanalytics, and chemistry across all the different products that we’re working on.” – Kristy Hawkins, CSO and Co-Founder, Antheia
4. Data centralization is key to ensuring regulatory compliance
Regulatory processes, like IND filings and patent maintenance, require biotech companies to submit organized data with detailed histories. Outdated tools like paper notebooks and other legacy record keeping systems slow preparation for these processes and ultimately delay approval of revolutionary, potentially life-saving technologies.
“Ultimately what Benchling is going to allow Adicet to do is to move rapidly into the clinic with life-saving therapies, and has set up the company for long-term success in the future.” – Jeannette Grant, Associate Director of Project Management, Adicet Bio
When Adicet Bio was operating on paper notebooks and emails, preparing information for these processes was incredibly challenging. But once they adopted Benchling, Adicet’s data was centralized and organized in a unified platform. Adicet has 2,500 notebook entries – across 38 projects and 50 authors – and 1,500 unique, registered entities that are all interlinked within Benchling. With this level of structured data capture, Adicet’s preparation for IND filings is more efficient than ever.
5. To plan for success, you must also plan for attrition along the way
Whether you are working on an emerging biologics project or working at an emerging biotech company, setting yourself up for success can be tricky at the start. Decisions about both science and business rely heavily on data- so how do you plan months to years ahead when you don’t yet have project outcomes or output data? For the speakers at Benchtalk West, the key to planning for their success includes planning for some setbacks too.
“At the end of the day, it’s not a defined engineering problem. We’re working with biological systems and hopefully doing cutting edge research. So there’s always something that comes up that is unexpected. And you have to be able to account for that, both in your research plan and in your business plan.” – Kristy Hawkins, CSO and Co-Founder, Antheia
Kristy Hawkins of Antheia spoke about the field of synthetic biology, where it seems like no matter how well you plan, there is always more to take into account. Though Antheia’s timelines for developing their first molecules didn’t quite meet their initial projections, they use this outcome as data to forecast for the future.
For Jackie Papkoff of Assembly Biosciences, accounting for unforeseen setbacks is fundamental to long term planning. As Assembly sets timelines for isolating and testing novel bacteria, they also consider possible attrition. As they progress, they then factor successes and failures from the previous cycle into future planning.
“There are a lot of similarities to any new platform that doesn’t have a lot of data to build your plan on. So to plan at Assembly, we look at what was a successful, such as the generation of antibodies, or identification of candidate therapeutic bacteria, and we build in some attrition in order to set our timelines.” – Jackie Papkoff, CSO Microbiome, Assembly Biosciences
What comes next?
There was a buzz of excitement that filled the air at Benchtalk West this April after hearing from leaders and change-makers from across biotech R&D. The future of biologics is bright, promising innovations and technologies that could radically improve the way we live. To get there, the industry is moving in a direction that calls for bigger and better data management that can handle the rapid evolution of R&D processes. To move forward, industry leaders need to both recharacterize what it means to plan for success and leverage their data to drive decision-making.
Here at Benchling, we are humbled by both the opportunity to serve the growing life science industry with the Benchling platform and the possibility to facilitate dialogue between members of the life science R&D community. Though projects may vary greatly from lab to lab across academia and industry, a common thread connects the tireless work of life science professionals: the goal to impact life for the better. Whether your work is dedicated to protecting human life or life on this planet, we hope to continue to engage the greater life sciences community and foster discourse that advances the industry.