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8 mins read

Get to Know Labstep: A Q&A with the Heads of Product and Customer Success

January 10, 2024

Last fall, STARLIMS announced the strategic acquisition of Labstep, a next generation cloud Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) platform, with the aim of expanding STARLIMS’ portfolio to be able to support each stage of the value chain, from R&D through commercialization. We sat down with Labstep’s Head of Product, Barney Walker, and Head of Customer Success & Growth, Jenny Hu, to discuss their backgrounds and learn why they’re excited to join the STARLIMS umbrella.

Thanks for joining us today! Can you tell us about your role at Labstep?

Barney Walker: As head of Product, I own the vision and roadmap of where Labstep is going as a product: What are the most important problems we should be solving? What features do we need to add? What improvements do we need to make from the user experience side? I work very closely with the development team to figure out how we can make that vision reality and then execute it properly.

Jenny Hu: I’m the head of Customer Success & Growth, where I oversee the strategic planning and execution of commercial initiatives to drive growth and success of the Labstep ELN division. Our team’s goal is to deliver value, build long-term relationships, and champion the voice of our customers. By prioritizing our customers, we’re invested in their growth and ours.

What was your journey that led you to Labstep?

Barney Walker: I come from a scientific background. Physics and biology. I was doing a PhD at Imperial and found myself getting very frustrated with how hard it was to keep track of everything that was going on in the lab and how long it takes to write up notes. Everything was really disconnected. So, I think even back then I had dreams of a lab notebook that would just write itself.

I was also very interested in a lot of things around the space, such as scientific publishing, open data, and the reproducibility crisis. I think they’re all connected. There was a Slack channel for science disruptors, and someone from Labstep posted in it saying they needed user testers, early on in their creation of the product.

Jenny Hu: I similarly come from a scientific background. I’m a computational geneticist by training, and with Labstep I decided to try a different direction and pursue a career in tech. I have a passion for innovative technologies that enable great science and shape the future of research. During my academic years I spent most of my days and nights in the lab, getting up-close and personal with science. Joining Labstep gave me the opportunity to work with other scientists and help improve their research experience with better technology.

You mentioned a “reproducibility crisis.” What does that mean?

Barney Walker: It’s a consistent theme within science that about 50% of experiments can’t be replicated, which has been termed the “reproducibility crisis.” It’s more vocalized in academic circles than it is in commercial, but there are some very high-profile publications that dig into the fact that it’s just as bad within the commercial sector.

Results in large R&D organizations cannot be easily reproduced, and that’s because the process of steps that led to those results—to that potential groundbreaking cure for cancer, for example—weren’t captured, weren’t properly recorded, and can’t be shared. And a big part of that falls on Electronic Lab Notebooks. Existing ELNs in these organizations are not always widely adopted, because historically they’re not very user-friendly.

It’s a multifaceted problem, and it was one of the core themes that we tried to address. We want to be able to move the needle and fundamentally make science more reproducible for organizations. And if we can do that, even by a small degree, that’s going to have a massively profound impact on science and the rate at which the baton can be picked up and carried forward in an innovation cycle.

Are most of your customers using an existing ELN? What do you do when a client comes to you with a shoe box filled with post-its?

Jenny Hu: Surprisingly, many come to us from using pen and paper, random spreadsheets, and notes that sit on boards in labs. Some have Word documents with no version control and stuff sitting everywhere. Some give exports of their Google drives, which is just thousands and thousands of bits of data, and we’ve had people scanning in paper notebooks. The Labstep ELN allows them to bring that all together into one place and tie in their inventory and devices, to give context to their data and make it fully traceable.

People are moving away from pen and paper, though. We have a lot of customers that will come over from existing products. We’ve managed to make it easy and intuitive to take existing information, import it en masse, and get it onto the platform. So, our customers get started quickly and easily move from other systems.

Barney Walker: Our ELN lowers the barrier to entry, and it’s a step towards building the lab of the future.

Everybody wants to be doing things in a robust and structured way, that’s connected and automated—that’s the vision that a lot of people share. But getting started is already a significant challenge, because products on the market can have lengthy deployments or they’re too feature-heavy, making things more complicated. What we’re trying to do is make that transition a bit easier.

On day one you can use our ELN exactly the way that you’re used to working, whether that’s on Word or even on paper. You can write everything down into the notebook and then we can progressively help you make that more structured. We can start linking the inventory. We can start linking in the devices. We can start templating things into protocol. But it’s not like you must have all of that set up on day one. It’s very flexible in allowing you to gradually work towards that ultimate vision of your informatics strategy.

What is something that really impresses your customers during their first few months using the Labstep ELN?

Jenny Hu: That they can work together simultaneously, as well as easily pass off experiments to others to move forward with. Management and oversight of lab activity becomes easier, as well. We have customers pull up the Labstep ELN in Zoom meetings across the world and make edits in real time, depending on what they’re working on.

Barney Walker: The ability to tie your inventory into your notebook is another one. There’s still a lot of people that have all that information siloed and disconnected, so they don’t have knowledge of how much inventory they have, when they’ve used it, etc. Now they have a system that can automatically deduct materials from inventory.

It sounds like an ELN could be good for sustainability and conservation of resources.

Barney Walker: Absolutely. Time, materials, lab energy. With Labstep ELN you can track usage and costs, and by quickly identifying something that’s not working in your experiment, you can prevent wasted time and material. You can also more accurately anticipate how much of a material you need to order. I don’t know how big a problem over-ordering is, but lab materials do often have an expiry date. I know that when I was working in the lab, we would find stuff in the fridge that was 4 years old. So, the better you are at tracking your usage, the more efficient you can be both from a cost-saving angle and a sustainability one.

Jenny Hu: Labs also use tons of single-use disposable plastic because you must have sterile environments, like plastic gloves, tubes, and so on. When you consider the fact that over half of all experiments can’t be recreated, then 50% of everything you’re doing and using is wasted. Science is often about experimentation and failing, and labs are not the most sustainable places. So, if we can help minimize manual error, make it more streamlined, and improve experiment reproducibility, then yes, we are going to have an impact on making some of that experimentation more sustainable in terms of the consumables and wastage.

What makes you most excited about joining with STARLIMS?

Jenny Hu: It is so exciting that we will be working on a larger team, expanding our knowledge transfer with a diverse range of experiences and expertise. It’s going to allow us to solve more complex problems with innovative solutions! Also, with the additional resources, we’ll have the capacity to grow and scale our team to gain a wider reach in the industries. The more we can grow, the more we can improve the work of researchers. It’s empowering knowing that we can make a difference.

Barney Walker: I think I am most excited about expanding our customer base and building deeper relationships and solving new problems with them. STARLIMS is highly respected in its field. They’ve built strong relationships with their customers and have earned a lot of credibility. There’s certainly alignment there.

One of our main competitive advantages is that we’ve been able to have user-driven product development. We’ve had a wide array of different scientists from various fields and scientific disciplines using the tool and providing feedback. By continuing to grow our user base by joining a larger company, we can continue to fine-tune the product and deliver something that truly helps to streamline science.

Thanks so much Barney Walker and Jenny Hu for sharing with us how the Labstep ELN is changing the way scientific research is conducted! Curious to learn more about the team at Labstep? Read the interview with its founder, Jake Schoefield. Stay tuned for more information about how the Labstep ELN is enhancing our already robust R&D/Quality Manufacturing Informatics Platform.

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