New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists

Lab of the Future | How the Concept Has Evolved with Zahid Tharia (Sponsored by Benchling)

January 02, 2024 Zahid Tharia Episode 163
New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists
Lab of the Future | How the Concept Has Evolved with Zahid Tharia (Sponsored by Benchling)
Show Notes Transcript

Founding Director at Open Pharma Research Zahid Tharia, joins us for a conversation about the evolution of the lab of the future. Tharia discusses his story of launching Open Pharma Research which led to the inception of the Lab of the Future Congress.

Listen for the major highlights of the recent Lab of the Future Congress in Amsterdam and a preview of upcoming events in 2024, including the Lab of the Future Congress USA and the Lab of the Future Congress in Europe. Tharia encourages a broad audience, including R&D leaders, scientists, lab heads and technology professionals to attend these events, fostering collaboration and innovation in the life science sector.

Key Learning Points:

  • The emergence of the term "lab of the future" and what it means
  • What concepts and technologies are shaping the future of life science research
  • The rapid advancement of virtual reality and the impact of digital transformation

Full Transcript Available on Buzzsprout

Our Sponsor for this Episode
Benchling creates the software that powers the biotechnology industry. More than 200,000 scientists at over 1,200 companies globally —  from cutting-edge start-ups to 20+ of the 50 largest global biopharma — rely on the Benchling R&D Cloud as their central source of truth for scientific data, analysis, and collaboration. Benchling is on a mission to accelerate scientific progress through advanced software that's purpose-built for biology.

To learn more,  visit: Benchling.com

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Hannah Rosen: 

Hello everyone and welcome to New Matter, the SLAS podcast where we interview life science luminaries. I'm your host, Hannah Rosen, and today we will be speaking with Zahid Tharia, Founding Director at Open Pharma Research. Open Pharma Research recently held their annual European Lab of the Future Congress, and Zahid is here to discuss with us how the conversation around the lab of the future has evolved over time. So, to start us off with, can you just provide us with a little bit of your professional background? 

Zahid Tharia: 

I'm a medicinal chemist by training and I spent a very short period of time as a lab scientist. I then very quickly moved to scientific publishing and was an assistant editor of a pharma R&D tracking publication. So I did that for a while and then it was sort of a short hop and a skip and a jump into pharmaceutical events. I started that many years ago, really enjoyed it and then eventually ran Informa’s international life science events and publishing business. I then decided that I’d quite like to set up my own business in this area. In 2007, I set up a company called Health Network Communications, which was an events company that grew quite rapidly, had a number of large-scale events both in Europe and in the US, and we eventually sold that business in 2016. Since then, I worked as a consultant of the Pistoia Alliance, which is a not-for-profit organization that works with the life science sector to lower barriers to innovation in life science R&D, and I am, as you are kindly mentioned in your introduction, a Founding Director of Open Pharma Research. 

Hannah Rosen: 

So how did you come about being one of the founders of Open Pharma Research? 

Zahid Tharia: 

With my two partners, Kirianne Marshall and Luke Gibson, we identified a gap in the market and a need for a large-scale event for the life science industry that addresses the changing nature of biopharma research, the role of the new science, the new modalities, the new technologies, and sitting above all of that, the power that cross stakeholder collaboration can have in the delivery of novel therapeutics to patients. Thought a lot about that, and then from that and some discussions that we had with some very prominent people within the biopharma industry, we launched the Lab of the Future Congress to discuss some of these issues. 

Hannah Rosen: 

And that was in 2018 that you first launched the Lab of the Future Congress? 

Zahid Tharia: 

We started working on the Congress probably in about 2017 and then throughout 2018, we started speaking to partners and sponsors and people from the life science industry, and in 2018 launched the Congress. But the first incarnation of the of the of the event was in 2019, which was at the Wellcome Genome Campus which is outside of Cambridge, UK. 

Hannah Rosen: 

It's interesting, I feel like this concept and term of lab of the future has really started to explode in the past couple of years, so you guys were really ahead of your time, I think. So, when did you first become aware of this idea of the lab of the future and why did you decide to focus on it when you did? 

Zahid Tharia: 

I first came across it probably as a term in, I think probably about 2017, early 2017. The concepts that sit under the lab of the future term are not concepts that are new to us. New technology, data, data science, new modalities, cross stakeholder collaboration, all of those were topics that were important to the industry, but the lab of the future seems to bring all of these concepts together and stitch them together with the overarching objectives of making a strategic operation work that will allow ourselves and to innovate. So, it's about setting up a, I guess, an infrastructure that supports our scientists and allows them to innovate, which is why we found the term very powerful and it certainly resonates within the life science sector, which is the sector that this congress serves. 

Hannah Rosen: 

When you were first coming up with this concept back in 2017, what were these conversations around the lab of the future focusing on? What were people envisioning that the lab of the future was going to be? 

Zahid Tharia: 

Yeah, the physical and virtual infrastructure that we need to support our scientists and allow them to innovate, I think that was something that, people were mentioning how do we do that and what are the scientific problems that our industry is trying to solve as it relates to medicines development and how do we empower our scientists and give them the tools and technologies that they need so that they can work on these problems unencumbered. That, I think, was coming out very strongly, and one of the things that we were quite fortunate with is that, I mentioned at the beginning, that we ran the inaugural meeting at the Genome Campus in Hinxton in 2019, and at the time about a mile or so away from the Genome Campus was this massive laboratory that AstraZeneca were building, which is now the DISC Center, and many of the technologies and the tools and the infrastructure we were talking about were being brought to life by these very talented people who were working at the AstraZeneca DISC site. And so what we were able to do was we were able to draw from that and the energy and the excitement that had generated and we also had a number of very senior scientists and digital and lab leads who came to the meeting to talk about the work that they were doing. 

Hannah Rosen: 

That's interesting. Was there anything that you guys were kind of talking about at that first Congress as, we see this having a really big place a lot in the future that has since not come to fruition that, you know, we thought this was going to have a bigger place, but now the trajectory has kind of gone in a different direction? 

Zahid Tharia: 

That's a very good question. There was anything that we talked about, certainly the broad themes that we covered in that meeting are still themes that we covered today. Some of them have moved a lot quicker than others, others perhaps a lot slower. But I don't think there's anything that we covered in terms of the broad themes in 2019 that we're still not talking about today, and I don't know whether we should be reassured by that or not, but it's certainly a very exciting time for us. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, to that extent, how have you seen these conversations about the lab of the future sort of evolve over the past six years that you've really been thinking about this and I'm curious, you know, how has, obviously more and more people are starting to think about this concept of the lab of the future, and so how has that kind of impacted the way that people are talking about it? 

Zahid Tharia: 

Some of the things that we're still talking about and the problems that are yet to be resolved is, how do we ensure that the tools and the equipment that we're using, how do we make them interoperable and connected? And we were talking about that in 2019. We're still talking about it in 2023, and we've got our two congresses in 2024 and the series of digital dialogues that we have next year, and I suspect that we'll still be talking about that and trying to get our heads around this quite fundamental problem which is hampering the way that we work and it's still to be resolved. So that's still there. The other thing that has grown since 2019 is digital transformation. Many of our companies and supporters who came to the event in 2019, many of them were either just at the start of a digital transformation journey or they were thinking about it and hadn't yet jumped in, and what we have seen since then is that digital transformation has really taken hold of our industry in R&D, and we're trying to ensure that we create a a digital infrastructure that allows our scientists to share across regional boundaries between sites and to ensure that the data that we generate is not stuck in silos and the relevant people are able to work and gain insights from that data. The other thing that I think is probably developed quite significantly since 2019 is our knowledge of data science the need for data standards. I think when we started in 2019, I don't think I think anybody was talking about the verification of data, but now you can't get away from it and it really is one of the fundamentals of data science. In order to ensure that some of the exciting tools that we have now in generative AI and large language models, unless your data is of the right quality and well structured, you will not be able to realize the potential that some of these predictive tools have to offer. 

Hannah Rosen: 

It's very interesting because, you know, I think particularly when you talk about AI and machine learning, you know, these are technologies that have progressed just so rapidly over the past few years and it's so interesting that you talk about how the conversation around those have changed so much, and yet this question of interoperability has remained a bit stagnant and kind of the same, and I always, you know, had this impression of the lab of the future, it's got to evolve so quickly and change so quickly because some of these technologies advance, but it seems like we're advancing in certain areas and lagging behind in others. And I wonder, do you have any sort of impression of the reasons why that might be? 

Zahid Tharia: 

It's probably very complicated. But I've certainly can share some of the stories that have been shared with me as we were developing the program. I won't mention companies, but a very large pharmaceutical company was going through this incredibly ambitious lab restructuring program where lots of these normal technologies were being considered and being onboarded, and there was a heck of a lot of excitement around what we would be able to do as a result of this. And the guy that I was talking to said well, this is great, but we don't actually have the Internet bandwidth to support this. You know, so we've got all of this stuff, but it's causing all our equipment to crash because we haven't got the basics in place. I think that's probably quite an extreme example, but if we look at the excitement and the height that surrounds AI and generative AI, until we get the basics in place, we're never going to realize it's true potential. And the basics have to do with the data and cleaning up and structuring our data so that it can be in a form that is a machine readable, machine actionable, and can be used by these powerful tools that everybody's been talking about in the last year or so. 

Hannah Rosen: 

I think that speaks to why these sorts of conversations like those being held at the Lab of the Future Congress are so important because it's one of those things where, you know, when you're collecting data, you're not collecting that data with the, in mind like, well, what will I be able to do with this data five years from now? What format will this data need to be in, in five years so that it's still usable? You're just focused on the now. And to make people aware of the importance of, you know, collecting your data in a certain way or, you know, processing in a certain way, having these data standards is really important because otherwise you're always going to be, you know, so many years behind what the technology is capable of if you haven't prepared for it. 

Zahid Tharia: 

Yeah, absolutely. Some of the other things that perhaps have probably advanced a lot quicker than we would have thought, and I do remember in 2019 we were looking at what we thought of as quite futuristic technologies such as, you know, virtual reality and some of the robotic tools that were being discussed as the lab of the future are now quite commonplace in the modern lab environment, so I think that probably has moved a lot quicker than other areas and certainly very exciting and in the now with the Lab of the Future Congress that we've just held in Amsterdam, which you were at Hannah, we had a few of our exhibitors with VR headsets that they were able to share with our visitors to demonstrate how these technologies can be used in the lab. 

Hannah Rosen: 

And it's also very dependent on the type of lab too, right? I know that was a big topic of conversation in some of the sessions at the conference this year was academia and how difficult it can be to integrate laboratory automation into academic labs and how the vision of what may be the lab of the future for one lab could be completely the lab of the past for another. 

Zahid Tharia: 

Yeah, it depends what your starting point is, doesn't it? Yeah. And I guess, yeah, you're absolutely right. So some of the things that we're doing in the modern research laboratories and some of our big pharmaceutical organizations is probably very different than what's being done in the academic lab. But what an academic view is that lab of the future is probably very different from what is being viewed by many of the other speakers. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Definitely. Do you have any insights over how, you know, given the way that you've seen these conversations around the lab of the future evolving over the past five or six years, do you have any insight into where you see the trajectory of these conversations going over the next five years or so? 

Zahid Tharia: 

I think we'll continue to talk about the broad schemes to do with the cross-stakeholder collaboration, interoperability and connectivity, digitalization and digital transformation. I think we'll still be talking about that. We will still be talking about how we configure the lab so that we're able to get the best from our scientists, virtualization and fully automated labs. We're certainly seeing some examples of that now and a few years ago they were an exciting trend, but it seems like there are examples of fully automated labs that we are able to share that perhaps we weren't able to do in 2019. After a few false starts, I think AI is starting to demonstrate real value in pharma R&D. You have many companies discovering and developing therapeutics solely through through AI and that is an exciting development and many of them are in clinical and in late-stage clinical development. The other trajectory worth talking about is the nature of cross-stakeholder collaboration. I do think that some of these technologies that we're covering in lab of the future have empowered cross-stakeholder collaboration and have enabled some very exciting research partnerships. As a result of that, and that's something I don't think that that we could have said in 2019. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I've noticed that in my conversations around the topic as well is just everybody understanding the importance, especially in that interoperability side of things. I think that those collaborations really are going to be key moving forward. So, in your personal opinion, you know, having seen quite a few of these Lab of the Future Congresses so far, looking back at this recent European event, were there any really major highlights that stood out to you in Amsterdam this year? 

Zahid Tharia: 

Yes, I think there were, aside from the record number of attendees that we had, what was refreshing was the the level of sharing between stakeholders, so cooperation and collaboration was absolutely top of the agenda from the keynote talks right at the very beginning. That collaboration and cooperation was a theme that laced many of the presentations over the course of the two days. And not just between life science organizations, but between the vendor community and the biopharmaceutical companies that developers of the therapeutics. So that was really refreshing the level of open discussion and sharing that was going on over the course of the two days. It reminded me of an adage that is, it's an old, I think it's Persian adage, but we use it at the Pistoia Alliance, that if you want to travel quickly go alone, but if you want to travel further, you need to travel together. And so, I think that resonated for me because if our community wants to solve some of these quite pressing challenges that we have in medicines development, what we will do need to do is to work together as a community. And I think that was quite a powerful message that came out of the meeting and it was a key highlight for me. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah. I think one of the things that I took away was a lot of the focus of, especially the keynote presentations, was beyond just advances in the technology itself, but also a focus on the change management side of things and how to really get everybody on board with these and the cultural impact that it can have in the lab, which I think is a lot of times something that really does get overlooked. 

Zahid Tharia: 

No, you're absolutely right, Hannah. And a number of our presenters at the opening of the conference highlighted change management as the key challenge to negotiate when you're managing your digital transformation program. And in fact, at the Lab of the Future, we ran a poll last week where we ask people to tell us where the change management was the key challenge to delivering the lab of the future. I'm not quite sure of the exact percentages, but it was overwhelmingly the respondents agreed with that statement that change management is the key challenge in delivering digital transformation in the lab of the future. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah. Yeah. That's so interesting because, yeah, I feel like so often we focus on on the technology and and don't think about that human element.  

Zahid Tharia: 

Yeah, exactly. 

Hannah Rosen: 

So what events do you guys have coming up in 2024? 

Zahid Tharia: 

We have the Lab of the Future USA Congress, which is on the 11th and 12th of March next year, and I know Hannah, you'll be there and SLAS will be there, so I'm really looking forward to seeing you again in person. So we have that on the 11th and 12th and it's been thrilling to see the high-level participation from the major pharmaceutical companies and biotechs who've given us their support. We also have the Lab of the Future Congress in Europe where we return to the Beurs van Berlage in central Amsterdam. That's on the 1st and 2nd of October of next year. And in between we have our regular series of digital dialogue sessions where we take topical issues and have an online discussion with leading life science figures in this one-hour webinar that we call digital dialogue. So, and we have a number of those scheduled next year. So, the two big congresses and these online discussions. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, that's fantastic. Who do you recommend attends these conferences or these webinars that you host? 

Zahid Tharia: 

It's a broad church. So we have R&D leaders and R&D scientists, we have lab heads, lab operations, people, we have people who are responsible for managing the digital and technology programs within the pharmaceutical industry, we also have lots of informaticians and people who are responsible for developing the information architecture, and then data scientists, people responsible for AI and machine learning, and getting insights from the data that's been generated. And this goes right across the spectrum and the value chain, from discovery clinical development and also manufacturing. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Fantastic. Do you, before we wrap up, do you have any closing thoughts or words of wisdom you want to impart or encourage people to think about when they're thinking about this concept of the lab of the future? 

Zahid Tharia: 

I don't think it's words of wisdom that I can share other than to say that it's been really exciting and motivating to work with people who are right at the top of their game in their pharmaceutical research and development and are developing solutions and products that have a real benefit on the well-being of the patient. And what is inspiring is that despite all the talk that we have about technology and about infrastructure and about the lab of the future, in the end, what we are doing is we are developing therapeutics and treatments that change people's lives. And I think that is central to the work that we do in our industry, it is inspiring to, at the very least, be an observer, watch these people share this exciting work and have a small role to play in the dissemination of the ideas that they have and hopefully improving the health of our community. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Zahid, thank you so much for joining us today, and this has been a really enlightening conversation. And I know I personally look forward to attending future Lab of the Future Congresses, and I'm sure that there are many people who are listening to this podcast who will benefit from them as well. 

 

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