Expert advice: maintaining lab flow throughout the pandemic

Lu Rahman talks to John Fuller, Product Manager–Drug Discovery, Beckman Coulter Life Sciences about the pandemic’s impact on this global organisation and its customers — and what to expect in 2021 and beyond.

Not surprisingly, the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 caused hundreds, if not thousands of drug discovery research labs worldwide to re-prioritise their efforts. This, of course, had a ripple effect on companies that supply these labs with instruments, reagents and labware. Those suppliers also faced unprecedented challenges that required them to reevaluate everything from manufacturing capacity to customer service and support processes.

LR: A common theme we heard from research labs toward the end of 2020 was about the backlog of work they were experiencing. What advice would you give these organisations and what measures/purchases should they think about implementing to help overcome their backlogs?

JF: I think it’s good to consider the dynamics of on-site scheduling, both in terms of current social distancing requirements (spacing in the lab) but also the typical considerations of staffing, resource allocation, etc. Have a look at workflows and think about the tasks that can be time-shifted by automation (eg sample prep steps with extended downtime). Think about technology purchases that are ‘friendly’ enough to be used by occasional ‘walk-up’ scientists who need highly reproducible data.

Backlogs can also be managed by scaling up to more traditional high-throughput environments. These aren’t either/or decisions. Our systems, such as the Echo acoustic liquid handler, are ideal in both scenarios.

LR: The pandemic created a raft of issues for drug discovery and research. In what ways has Beckman Coulter Life Sciences been able to assist its customers and help them overcome workflow problems as they pivoted to Covid-19-related research?

JF: I think as the pandemic began, like most, we were thrown into uncharted territory and facing a lot of unknowns alongside our customers. For instance, in some cases, we had to help our customers with an orderly shut-down of various systems. In that regard, our service and applications staff members were on call to help with specific concerns or requests.

As work has slowly returned to a more defined pace, we found that our customers were still facing many of the usual challenges (eg new hire training) but with added constraints, such as fewer people in the lab at a given time. This is another area where we looked to new solutions, such as virtual training options, as well as good old-fashioned phone calls and e-mails to help our newest customers understand how their instrumentation could best fit their workflow.

Of course, with in-person visits still being a challenge for the foreseeable future, our sales, service and application teams are launching new augmented reality tools to strengthen pre- and post-sales workflow identification, implementation and support processes.

LR: What advice can you offer researchers looking to invest in new technology in 2021 that will help them manage already-stressed budgets while optimising operational efficiency?

JF: First and foremost, start with the human element. Simple ROIs that speak to metrics such as cost savings for reagents or consumables account for only part of the justification for implementing new technology.

My advice is to fully understand to what degree the technology will require specialised expertise or if someone with limited training—but a clear focus and understanding for using the technology to solve your problems—can roll up their sleeves and bring the solution on-line.

LR: What specific things should researchers consider before purchasing new instruments in 2021 (eg liquid handlers, flow cytometers and cell counters)?

JF: I would consider support versatility as the single most important factor to consider before purchasing an instrument in 2021. Given the challenging environment we all continue to face, if you need the instrument or solution installed, it’s important to know if the vendor has a team with the versatility to work around your specific needs. Finally, consider the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Before implementing a specific solution, consider how that solution allows for full capacity on current projects while also providing bandwidth for work that may have been delayed due to pandemic-related challenges. 

LR: How has Beckman Coulter Life Sciences dealt with issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, and what ongoing challenges do you see for your company in 2021 and beyond?

JF: I think like every organisation, we recognised that we were in unprecedented territory with the pandemic. Fortunately, our company uses business tools that help us focus and prioritise in a coordinated fashion.

As a life sciences company with a portfolio of genomic reagents and automated liquid handling solutions, we quickly realized the impact some of our products and services (eg RNA extraction and qPCR miniaturisation, drug repurposing workflowscould have during the pandemic.

We then carefully implemented the crucial precautions necessary for providing full support to our customers that were engaged in Covid-19-based workflows. We also strove to keep our non-Covid related customers in a good place with a nimble support structure. It may very well be a ‘new world’ post-pandemic, but we think we have a solid foundation in place to help our customers meet their new challenges.

 LR: Are there any initiatives or product launches you will be working on in the near future that you can share with us?

 JF: I have one initiative that I’m particularly excited to be working on, which is using Echo acoustic liquid handling technology for CRISPR-based genome editing workflows. We’re looking at using the Echo liquid handler for at-will dispensing combinations of CRISPR reagents that can be used in conjunction with established workflows for drug discovery and synthetic biology.

Volume 22, Issue 2 – Spring 2021


John Fuller is the commercial product manager for Echo Drug Discovery at Beckman Coulter Life Sciences. He was previously a field applications scientist for Labcyte. He holds a PhD. from the U.N.T Health Science Center and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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